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Thousands in Hawaii could lose their food stamp benefits

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The state Department of Human Services is concerned that thousands of those in need might see gaps in their public assistance, as people are not completing the required paperwork to continue receiving their food stamp benefits.

This comes as Hawaii is seeing a record number of individuals on public assistance.

During the COVID-19 pandemic the federal government dropped the normal requirement that people on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, do an eligibility review and a six-month review. This was to ensure that people did not see a lapse in benefits during the pandemic. However, the waiver was lifted this month.

DHS sent out 2,200 Six Month Reviews letters in June, and only 700 were returned. The low return rate held for the Eligibility Review letters as well. The department sent out 15,000 Eligibility Review letters, and only 7,000 were returned.

DHS Benefit, Employment Support Services Administrator Brian Donohoe is concerned because these low numbers are not common.

“Typically, we receive about 80% back in normal years,” he said.

“On the Six-Month Review forms, it’s not even 50%. And on the Eligibility Reviews, it’s not even 50%. So it’s frighteningly low.”

Those who do not turn in their paperwork on time will be notified that their SNAP benefits have been terminated. While the person’s Electronic Benefit Transfer card will still work, no new funds will be added. The person would have to reapply, and would likely see a gap in receiving the service.

Donohoe is especially worried about the low return of paperwork because so many new people went on SNAP during the pandemic.

In June 2019 there were about 154,000 individuals receiving SNAP benefits. By June 2020 that number grew by about 26,0000 people, and has continued to increase.

As of June there are about 205,000 people on SNAP — 51,000 more than before the pandemic.

For those who are new to the program and have not yet had to turn in the Eligibility and Six-Month Review forms, the DHS website has resources explaining the requirements.

The department also has multiple language options for filling out the required paperwork for both the physical forms and the electronic ones.

Donohoe added that people on SNAP are required to notify DHS about changes in address so that the notices that are sent out reach those who need them.

This could become increasingly important as Gov. David Ige’s eviction moratorium will be lifted next month. The state has not yet offered projections on how this could affect those on SNAP receiving the reminders to turn in their required paperwork.

“If we’re talking about the the disconnect between addresses, that’s a challenging one,” Donohoe said.

There is a possible grace period for those who turn in their paperwork late, although it is not guaranteed that the paperwork will process in time. For example, if a person turns in their July paperwork late, as long as it is turned in by the last day of the month, they could still receive their benefits. However, if the department received an overwhelming number of paperwork on the last day of the month, it would be impossible for the staff to process it all.

“We have specific dates that are cutoff dates during the month, but our best effort is to make sure that if it was received, it’s registered,” Donohoe said.

In fact, the department devoted overtime during the weekend to make sure that all the forms were being processed as quickly as possible.

Although he cannot be sure, Donohoe does not think that the lack of returned paperwork means that people no longer need assistance.

“Our concern is that they’re simply not filling out the paperwork.”

People will continue to receive notices over the next six months to turn in the required paperwork, depending on the date that they started receiving SNAP benefits.

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