Concern for seniors as pioneer homes caught in budget battle

Residents and staff at the Palmer and Juneau pioneer homes, the state-run senior-care facilities, have been put on notice that a budget battle in the Alaska legislature is threatening to displace them.

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The budget is far from complete, and some legislators say the governor and state officials are passing blame for the cuts and resorting to scaring the elderly to get their way.

The state said that blame lies squarely with legislators.

Meantime, the fight over Alaska’s budget is literally bringing people like Kim Kiefer to tears. Kiefer is worried about her mother, Marilyn, a pioneer home resident in Juneau.

“Those people love my mother, just like I do,” Kiefer said of the Pioneer Home staff, choking up. “I’m frustrated, I feel like it’s a game that’s being played right now between the Senate and the House, the blame game.”

Marilyn and other seniors at the pioneer homes in Juneau and Palmer are at the center of a struggle over cuts needed to balance the state budget, with the Senate, House and governor all involved.

State senators recently approved their version of the budget, including a roughly 10 percent cut to the health department’s funds to operate the pioneer homes. Health officials, in turn, notified staff in Palmer and Juneau and word of the proposed cuts made it to residents and their family members, like Kim Kiefer and her mom.

And all that left Kiefer to wonder: “Ok, do I need to start right now trying to look for a place for my mom that’s safe?”

It’s a question that Republican state Sen. Shelley Hughes, who represents the greater Palmer area, said Alaska’s elderly population should not have to be asking.

Hughes said it is the strategy of Gov. Walker’s administration to cause a stir among constituents to pressure legislators — particularly republicans from the Matanuska-Susitna area — to vote in support of a state income tax.

The administration has discretionary funds to make up the difference and that the warning to the pioneer homes was way too early in the budgeting process, Hughes said.

“Using our frail and elderly as a political football is, I can’t even think of the right adjective, It is just incomprehensible. It is despicable,” Hughes said.

Department of Health and Social Services Commissioner Valerie Davidson did not care for that characterization.

“I like to think that when we’re talking about elders in our state, that we never refer to them in those derogatory terms,” Davidson said of the “political football” comment.

Davidson disputed the claim that notifying the dozens of pioneer home staff and residents of a possible late-summer closure amounted to “fear-mongering.” The residents and their families are already following the budget process closely, Davidson said.

The senate made the cuts, and its own documentation shows the cuts were made directly to the pioneer homes, Davidson said, providing a copy to Alaska Public Media.

As for discretionary funds, Davidson said those are for unexpected expenses. She said the money is not intended to bridge a gap created by legislators’ cuts.

“It appears to me that the senate’s intent was clear,” Davidson said. “It wasn’t the governor’s cut.”

Hughes and other members of the Mat-Su delegation maintain the state has the flexibility with those funds to further reduce spending and still take care of Alaska’s elderly pioneer home residents.

In the meantime, the budget process continues as legislators try to reconcile different versions from the House and Senate.