comscore Improve social-aid delivery | Honolulu Star-Advertiser
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Improve social-aid delivery

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Millions of hungry families have relied on food stamps to get them through the nation’s economic abyss, but many have had to wait weeks or months to obtain food stamps. Delays by Hawaii’s Department of Human Services are being challenged in federal court following a tug-of-war between Gov. Linda Lingle and the Democratic Legislature. With the end of partisan politics at the state level in sight, legislators and the incoming administration of Neil Abercrombie must work to remedy the system.

States are required by federal law to review applications of food stamps within 30 days of being filed. More than 38 million Americans — an average of 133,043 in Hawaii in the last fiscal year — receive food stamps, but a lawsuit filed last week insists that the state fully comply with federal law. The department has been processing about 78 percent of applications on time, while federal rules call for states to process at least 95 percent of applications within the time constraints.

Those numbers are certain to have grown last month, when the Lingle administration made 22,000 more Hawaii residents eligible for food stamps by increasing the cutoff to 200 percent of the federal poverty level — $50,736 yearly for a family of four.

The administration earlier this year called for streamlining statewide services to the needy, including those qualified for food stamps as well as welfare and Medicaid. Lillian Koller, the state director of human services, likened operations to a "horse-and- buggy system that is labor-intensive, costly and slow." The Legislature rejected her proposal, patterned after Florida’s 2004 overhaul, after it was opposed by the white-collar Hawaii Government Employees Association because it was projected to result in the laying off of 228 state workers.

Such an overhaul would include shortened interviews, relaxed verification, online applications, simplified reporting, phone-call centers and private-public partnerships. Limited by legislators to what she can do, Koller has been assigning teams of workers to handle only backlogged applications and screening applicants over the phone instead of in person to speed up the process, eliminating tests of applicants’ assets and assigning employees to assembly-like teams.

States have explained that the delays have been caused by overburdened bureaucracies, staff shortages or program rules. It comes as no surprise that those have been problems for Hawaii’s human services operations as well. Modernization is overdue, however, and with efficient phasing-in, Hawaii could and should do better.

Gov.-elect Abercrombie promised during the election campaign to "make structural changes to improve government effectiveness." In particular, he said he would assemble an advisory group for technology and innovation. Such a panel should put human services, including the handling of food stamps, at the top of its agenda for modernization.

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