- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 2, 2016

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) - State officials want to change eligibility requirements that now allow non-citizens to collect monthly senior benefits.

The proposed change from Gov. Bill Walker and the state health department would remove 16 people from the program that pays monthly benefits to low-income senior citizens. It would save the state about $43,000 annually.

Most of those who would be affected have not met the five-year residency requirement to receive benefits. Three others have moved to Alaska but don’t plan to immigrate. One person is in the country without legal permission.

Walker’s bill would require anyone receiving the senior benefit be a citizen or a qualified permanent resident.

The number of people who would not qualify under new residency requirements has climbed steadily since the senior benefit program’s inception in 2007, according to Department of Health and Social Services data. In total, the state has given more than $152,000 to seniors who were either not citizens or would not have met the five-year waiting period required of qualified permanent residents.

Katie Marquette, a Walker spokeswoman, said in an email that all public assistance programs in the state have citizenship requirements except a medical assistance program for chronic and acutely ill people.

That program still requires people to be citizens, but it waives the five-year residency requirement for qualified permanent residents, said health and social services spokeswoman Dawnell Smith.

The effort to remove non-citizens from the roster of eligible seniors comes as more than 5,000 seniors experience a 60 percent cut in their monthly payments. The cuts are part of last year’s budget reduction when the legislature slashed more than $3 million from the program.

There are nearly 12,000 seniors in Alaska who qualify for the benefits program. It’s split into three tiers of benefits, and payments are based on the monthly income for an individual or married couple. Those with the highest income, or about 45 percent of the seniors in the state who qualify for benefits, saw their benefits cut.

The monthly benefit payments to the nearly 6,400 seniors whose incomes fall more than 100 percent below federal poverty guidelines were left untouched by the budget cuts.

Seniors whose checks were reduced as of Tuesday only received a notice of the change last week.

Sean O’Brien, director of the Division of Public Assistance, said there was a delay in implementing last year’s budget cuts as the division was required to pass regulations determining how the cuts would be made. “That’s what took so long,” he said.

The division didn’t get the regulations in place until Jan. 29.

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