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DHS Here to Stay, for Now

Governor’s veto overrode.

It seems the back and forth tale of the Department of Human Resources (DHS) has come to a close – until 2011.

Last week, Gov. Linda Lingle vetoed SB 2650, CD 1 – a bill which stops DHS from implementing their reorganization plan and close offices around the state. On the last day of the legislative session, April 29, state Congress overrode the veto – once again saving 31 eligibility offices statewide.

“This was big,” said Rep. John Mizuno (30th District), chair of the Human Services committee. Mizuno wrote the anti-DHS closure language on the House version of the bill.

“To close a subunit would have been devastating to our people. And truly this is a victory for the people.”

Like Mizuno, DHS Molokai supervisor Bridget Mowat credited the recipients of DHS for rallying.

“The people – they voiced, [and] they petitioned,” she said. “It just shows that something that big that would happen in the state, it takes time and cannot just be implemented without structure or plan.”

“There is a large segment of population that relies on face-to-face public assistance,” Mizuno added. “Some Molokai residents need face-to-face to navigate through assistance.”

DHS Director Lillian Koller has said she finds the bill “unfair to our Neighbor Islands.”

“People living on Oahu would begin receiving medical care, food and other vital benefits within a matter of weeks, while most people living in Hawaii, Kauai and Maui counties would continue waiting up to three or four months just to get the application process started,” she said in a statement.

New Concerns
However, the bill could allow for a compromise –a ‘pilot project,’ or a scaled down version of the reorganization. Offices around Oahu would be closed starting June of this year, while an Eligibility Processing Operations Division (EPOD) office has been set up in Honolulu. The project would be implemented in Honolulu County until June 2011, while the program’s effectiveness will be studied.

Mizuno’s senate counterpart on the bill, Suzanne Chun Oakland (13th District), said that before the pilot project is started, there will be public hearings to allow more citizens to be heard – a requirement by Chapter 91 under Hawaii State law.

“The concern by the legislature on the time frame the director [Koller] was hoping to implement is it is too short – in other states, it took about three years to fully implement [the EPOD program],” such as Florida, she added.

Mizuno said there are federal concerns as well to the pilot project. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), who funds the food stamp program administered by DHS, is concerned the reorganization would trump federal control.

Whether the pilot project goes through or not, a new administration will be on hand when the bill “sunsets,” or expires.

“I feel a little better because whoever the governor may be, they will have knowledge of the federal laws we have to follow,” Mizuno said. “We’ll have a better working relationship with them.”

UPDATE: DHS has announced they will no longer be going forward with their pilot project on Oahu.

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