Hawaii has seen a dramatic rise in applications for the state’s Medicaid program during the COVID-19 crisis, and the state is scrambling to meet the demand.
State Human Services Director Pankaj Bhanot said Monday his department is working to be flexible and accommodating to make sure benefits and essential services continue without disruption.
“We’re taking aggressive and proactive actions,” Bhanot told a hearing of the state Senate Special COVID-19 Committee. “We have all staff, all hands on deck.”
Despite rumors to the contrary, the state’s Medicaid program, Med-QUEST, is up and running and processing applications largely through a well-functioning online application procedure with no delays, he said.
This comes as demand for the health insurance for low-income adults and children is on the rise. Bhanot said March saw 6,409 applications, a 20% increase over January and February. On Thursday the program experienced a whopping 1,673 applications, while caseloads overall are up 40% over February. Med-QUEST is now averaging 400 applications a day, up from a previous average of 200 to 250 applications per day, he said.
Bhanot said the department also has suspended Med-QUEST disenrollments, a condition for matching Medicaid funds from the emergency relief act approved last week by Congress.
For now, he said, Med-QUEST will postpone implementing new health plan contracts and allow staff members to fully respond to the challenges of the coronavirus outbreak. That means Med-QUEST beneficiaries should continue to contact the current provider under their existing health plan.
As for the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or food stamps, certification periods for recipients requiring six-month review or eligibility reviews during March, April and May will be extended an additional six months to ensure no lapse in benefits due to the pandemic, he said.
Bhanot also said his department has been authorized to offer emergency child care for first responders, but no details about that program were available.
Bhanot told the senators that operations at the Human Services Department have been modified to allow for social distancing, minimizing face-to-face contact and even wearing personal protective equipment, for example, during child protective services visits. About one-third of the department’s staff are working at state offices while the rest are working online or on telephones from home.