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Giving voice to the Elders - St. Michael’s LOM work on House Bill 96 By: Kathy Bishop

In 2017, the closing of the Veterans and Pioneer Home in Palmer was destined to be closed. That began the relationship with the Pioneer Homes of Alaska, the residents of the Veterans and Pioneer Home in Palmer, the legislative delegation from the Valley, and St. Michael’s parishioners and LOM. After research, and an action, the budget was changed, and the Pioneer Homes remained open. The relationship between the Pioneer Home and the LOM continued.

In the fall of 2018, Clinton Lasely, the Director of the Pioneer Homes proposed rate increases for the residents, citing that the State could not afford to continue to subsidize all the residents of the homes and proposed rate increases up to 141%. Although residents were assured they would not be evicted if they could not pay, several residents felt they had to move, others just felt insecure and feared what would happen next. The new rates went into effect on July 1, 2019.

When the legislature convened, Zak Fields, the Representative from Anchorage where the Anchorage Pioneer Home resides, introduced a bill (HB96) to put into state statutes a formula that would be equitable and give continuity to the rates and assure the residents how they could plan their finances. The bill based future rate hikes on Social Security rates, Medicaid, COALA, and inflation. It also would allow an increase in the private money a resident could keep in an account to $500.

We did one-to-ones with residents and family members and determined that the issue was to advocate for Bill 96 to be passed. We did research meetings with Josh Shaver, & Adriana Shipowick from the Pioneer home, Cindy Farrens from Mat-Su Care Connections, Senator Wilson and Senator Shelley Hughes. We also organized a writing letter event with the residents of the Veterans and Pioneer Home. We invited their families to join us. Some residents spoke their thoughts and we wrote the letters. Others including family wrote their own. We sent them as one parcel to the Representatives from the Valley.

HB 96 passed the House of Representatives in March of 2019 and was sent to the Senate where it was tabled and the legislature adjourned without the Senate acting on the bill.

The LOM wrote letters to the Mat Su State Senators and asked members of St. Michael’s to also write letters, asking them to bring this to the floor as soon as the Legislature convened for the 2020 term and to pass this bill as soon as possible. Members of the LOM testified at 2 public hearings via teleconference. When the Covid 19 lock down came about we teleconferenced again with the Senators. The Bill was passed on March 19, 2020 unanimously in the Senate. Members of LOM then wrote letters to the Governor and letters to the Editor in Anchorage Daily News and The Frontiersman, urging the Governor to sign the bill as soon as possible so that the new rate hikes would go into effect on July 1, 2020. We also asked the parishioners of St. Michael’s to do the same.

Governor Dunleavy signed HB 96 into law on April 29, 2020.

The experience has been uplifting and sometimes difficult. We found we had to assume that our legislative body needs education on the bills that we have self-interest in. We had to be willing to make friends with them in order to educate them. They are not adversaries, but often do not know the extent of the concern for issues that the constituents might have. When they do hear this message, they usually respond.

We were especially grateful for the research meeting with Cindy Farrens from Mat-Su Care Connections Cindy was able to explain to us how Medicaid is billed and what the parameters are for someone getting on Medicaid.

We also learned that sometimes communication signals get mixed up and we as an LOM needed to be more attentive to holding them accountable, and how to do that by being assertive and not adversarial.

We also learned that the wheels of the legislature move slowly. But if we are persistent in developing the relationships and are clear about our goals, we can reach our goals.

The residents of the Veterans and Pioneer Home are very vulnerable. They do want to have a voice but, in many cases, could not speak that voice. They were grateful someone was there to do that for them. The relationships we have developed with the residents of the Palmer Home are strong and rewarding.

Our work is not done. We will continue to monitor the budget for the homes, and we will continue to visit (when the lock down is finished).

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