State making sure safety-net programs continue uninterrupted during pandemic

  • Bhanot

Several state programs to assist with food, finances and child care are available during the COVID-19 crisis for those who might need help.

During Gov. David Ige’s “Community Connection” Facebook Live stream on Tuesday, Pankaj Bhanot, director of the state Department of Human Services, said the state had to take unprecedented, aggressive and proactive action to ensure safety-net programs continue uninterrupted during the pandemic.

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Department employees aren’t having face-to-face contact with the public because of the social distancing critical to keeping everyone safe and healthy, he said, but work is ongoing.

“All our offices statewide are open, and we are processing applications for our benefits at a very fast and furious pace,” Bhanot said.

Food benefits are available through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, otherwise known as food stamps.

Bhanot encouraged anyone who is recently unemployed, had their work hours reduced or are in need to apply for SNAP benefits, but said individuals shouldn’t gauge their own eligibility based on information online.

“It’s very nuanced, it’s very complicated,” he said. “Just apply for the benefits online … .”

Applications can be submitted online or emailed, dropped off at local offices or mailed in.

In determining eligibility for SNAP, Bhanot said unemployment benefits — including an additional $600 per week bonus included in the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act — count as income, but a $1,200 stimulus payment most adults are set to receive does not.

Bhanot also urged people interested in applying for Medicaid to do so online.

Eligibility decisions for those online applications are made within 24 hours, provided all necessary information is available and submitted, he explained.

Neither the $1,200 stimulus payment nor the additional unemployment benefits coming through the CARES Act are counted as income toward Medicaid eligibility, he said.

Financial assistance also is available through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families — for families with children younger than 18 — and General Assistance programs — for those who are temporarily disabled but not able to receive federal supplemental security income or Social Security Disability Insurance.

According to Bhanot, the state DHS is receiving about 550 applications for SNAP and other financial assistance programs each day. During the weekend, the department received 1,100 applications.

The state has seen an increase of more than 100% in applications for SNAP and financial assistance programs and a 50%-60% increase or more in Medicaid applications, Bhanot said.

“We are approving and enrolling people at a very fast pace, as well, because that is what Human Services is all about — to provide that support when it’s needed,” he said.

Child care programs also are available for first responders, health care professionals and other essential workers in Hawaii, he said.

There are 30 sites available on the Big Island offering child care.

Bhanot said federal waivers and executive orders from Ige have made it simple for families to access child care subsidies and care in the community.

Families should apply for subsidies through the department’s Child Care Connection Hawaii program, and its contractor will determine eligibility, he said.

According to Bhanot, many of the program’s income, activity and reporting requirements have been suspended or relaxed.

“So you don’t have any barriers to applying and getting care that you need during this difficult time, particularly if you are (an) essential worker, you are a first responder or you’re a health care professional, we have these (subsidies) available depending on what the need is.”

In response to a question posed during the livestream, Bhanot also shared a number of domestic violence resources for those who might need it.

“Domestic violence in our Aloha State is absolutely not acceptable,” he said. “If you are afraid for yourself and your family and loved ones, please reach out. There are a lot of resources available.”

Individuals who need help can text the Domestic Violence Action Center at 605-956-5680, or call its helpline at 531-3771 or 800-690-6200 from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

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More domestic violence resources, and information about the department’s available programs and services, are available at humanservices.hawaii.gov.

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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