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State must speed up food stamp processing

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A large percentage of applicants for food stamps in Hawaii and many other states are having to wait a month or more for the processing, adding to the misery of the primary victims of the recession. Hawaii officials, doing what they can to serve their clients, must move forward on modernizing the system.

An Associated Press review of food-stamp programs in 39 states showed that at least a fourth of applicants waited weeks or months for food assistance. In Hawaii, 8,287 of the 58,274 families – 14.22 percent – whose applications were processed in the 2009 fiscal year waited at least 30 days for assistance.

Even a higher percentage of needy families experience such delays in some other states. In Texas, nearly 32 percent of the 1.8 million applicants have to wait at least a month for food assistance. One in five of the more than 217,000 applicants in Nevada face a similar delay.

This year’s Legislature rejected a proposal by the Lingle administration to streamline statewide services to the needy, including food-stamp applicants. Lillian Koller, the state human services director, said Hawaii’s "horse-and-buggy system that is labor-intensive, costly and slow" in providing public assistance should replicate changes made in Florida’s system.

Florida’s 2004 overhaul received national attention and praise by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers food stamps. However, the changes in Hawaii were opposed by the Hawaii Government Employees Association because of the projected laying off of 228 state workers through the efficiency.

Despite the praise of the Florida system, the explosion of food-stamp applications in the Sunshine State has been too much to handle. While Hawaii’s food-stamp families rose from fewer than 90,000 in recent years to 136,594 this March, Florida provided food stamps to fewer than 620,000 families in mid-2006 but handled more than 1.7 million applications in the past fiscal year; nearly 32 percent waited for at least a month for their applications to be processed.

A report of the Florida changes by Mathematica Policy Research Inc. found that shortened interviews, relaxed verification, applications by Internet, simplified reporting, phone-call centers and partnership with private organizations "help make applying and recertifying for food stamps more convenient and less burdensome."

This month, Vermont became the 22nd state to allow individuals to apply for food stamps from any computer with an Internet connection. Interviews still are required, but that is routinely allowed by telephone, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. In Hawaii, food-stamp applicants can make printouts of application forms but cannot transmit them to the Department of Human Services by Internet.

Koller is rightly miffed by the Legislature’s rejection of her proposed broad overhaul of services, including welfare and Medicaid along with food stamps. But strides can – and should – be made incrementally. Online applications and phone interviews should be allowed in Hawaii’s food-stamp application system without legislative action; present state law allows such applications "in the manner, place and form prescribed by the department."


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