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Molokai DHS Closing in June

Community, legislator fighting closure.

In a move that will allegedly save the taxpayers $8 million annually, the Department of Human Services (DHS) announced last week it is closing and consolidating 31 eligibility offices statewide, and implementing a new Eligibility Processing and Operations Division (EPOD) from offices in Honolulu and Hilo. Molokai’s office, with four staff members, is one of the closing locations, with its last day scheduled for June 30.

“It’s hard to say right now what will happen [to Molokai staff],” said Toni Schwartz, communications officer for DHS.

Eligibility offices currently located around the state, including Molokai, provide applications, renewal of applications, and maintenance services for about 66,000 public assistance recipients. DHS says their new phone services and website, to replace local offices, will streamline applications and give their customers faster and easier service.

But many disagree. Kala`e Tangonan is a Molokai resident who receives DHS benefits and is fighting the closure plan.

“[Our] community knows, and tends to be more helpful” versus “talking to someone who doesn’t know you at all, doesn’t understand exactly where you’re coming from,” she said. “You’ll get the run around forever.”

She estimated 80 percent of Molokai “has some sort of assistance” from DHS.

Putting Up a Fight
Tanganon is not the only individual fighting the consolidation plan. Allen Ng, Western region administrator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is also against DHS office closures. He sent a letter to Lillian Koller, director of DHS, about the State Nutrition Action Plan (SNAP), a USDA food stamp program facilitated by DHS.

His letter addresses USDA regulations that may be hindered by DHS’ new streamlining plan: timeliness of applications and requirement of availability to have a face-to-face interview. Schwartz said Koller has not formally responded to the letter, which “urges” DHS to reconsider their plan.

The Hawaii Government Employees Association (HGEA), the union representing DHS employees, said the letter states what their organization has also been trying to point out.

“There were places where these types of modernization programs worked, but they involved staff input and took time to plan out,” said Jodi Chai, HGEA communications officer. “The difference here is [DHS] is trying to rush this through.”

In addition, the State Senate has a bill to postpone the reorganization, pending a task force that would “determine the feasibility” of the reorganization. The bill goes to its final vote April 6. Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland (District 13) also set aside funds in the Human Services Committee budget to prevent implementation of DHS’ restructuring.

“[DHS’ plan] appears to be one of the most hair-brained ideas, trying to mask it with terms like modernization and streamline,” said Robert Perreira, executive director of HGEA. “[They’re] essentially creating obstacles to access in an uncaring way.”

However, Molokai residents are not leaving the protesting entirely up to the government. There are several petitions circulating to show opposition to the new plan, and Tangonan said she and other recipients are planning a rally in the next week to shed light on their problem.

“We’re trying to do everything we can to do what’s right for our island,” she said.

The Whys and Wherefores
While DHS closes 31 offices across the state, eliminating 228 positions, Schwartz said this is not the same as a layoff. Workers who have been with DHS for at least two years can be “bumped” into a different position within DHS.

As for the employees’ customers, they will receive their benefits faster and easier by applying or reapplying online or over the phone, according to the DHS news release,. Customers can also apply by mail, fax, or in person at a remaining DHS office in either Honolulu or Hilo. A webcam will even be available for those that want face-to-face contact at other DHS offices, Schwartz said.

DHS is adding a new automation function to their website, which is estimated to cost $783,382. Their news release also stated their customers can visit other “social service agencies, hospitals and health clinics on all Islands.”

One social service and health clinic on Molokai, Na Pu`uwai, offers help with some of the same health services as DHS, such as Medicaid and Med-Quest. They have a new eligibility worker, Andrea Kamae, who will help work through the medical paperwork. Judy Mikami, head of resource development at Na Pu`uwai, said Kamae will also be able to help with other welfare paperwork, such as financial assistance, as a community service.

“I don’t think it’s a burden; that’s our focus – to help the community,” Mikami said. “[But] it’s the State’s responsibility, they should do it.”

Photo by Chris Hamilton, The Maui News

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