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Hawaii News

State scrambles to cope with a surge in applications for ‘food stamps’

As the Hawaii economy has shut down to try to curb the coronavirus pandemic, applications have surged for the federally funded “food stamp” program now known as Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program.

A spokeswoman for the state Department of Human Services said the department received 3,293 applications last week for SNAP and for financial support through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

The daily volume of applications from March 27 to Friday was more than double the average number of filings in January and February as Hawaii businesses closed or curtained their operations, according to data provided by DHS Public Information and Communications Officer Amanda Stevens.

Nearly 1,800 applications for SNAP, TANF or both were approved by the end of the week, according to the data provided by the department.

DHS recently rolled out a new online SNAP application process to cope with the rush, and applications are being processed within about two days, Stevens said.

DHS Director Pankaj Bhanot said Monday that under an executive order issued last week by Gov. David Ige, DHS will now presume that all applicants for general assistance financial support payments from the state are eligible for the payments.

General assistance payments of up to $348 per month are made to disabled adults without children who do not qualify for disability payments under Social Security. The presumption that applicants do qualify will remain in place until the pandemic emergency is over, Bhanot said.

“This change is warranted due to the need for social distancing, the reduction in physicians available to conduct medical evaluations and assessments, as well as limited physician availability for mandatory follow-up visits,” he said. The Ige order also relaxed some regulations for child care and child care subsidies, he said.

Stevens said the department has also been fielding calls from clients who receive support from Medicaid, SNAP or other federal programs who worry they could lose those benefits if they accept the enhanced unemployment insurance benefits under the federal CARES Act passed by Congress on March 27.

The extra unemployment payments will not affect eligibility for QUEST, SNAP and child care assistance, Bhanot said, but DHS is still seeking guidance on whether the federal lump sum stimulus payments of $1,200 per adult and $500 per child will affect eligibility for benefits.

Bhanot also said DHS is encouraging people who have lost their jobs and their medical coverage to apply for health coverage under the Affordable Care Act on the federal exchange. People who lose their job-based coverage have 60 days to apply, he said.

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