WAILUKU - Hawaii Department of Human Services Director Lillian Koller's plan to streamline how the poor, elderly and ill receive state assistance was roundly dismissed as coldhearted and ineffective at a public briefing held Thursday night by the chairman of the state House Human Services Committee.
Several speakers at the meeting that drew about 80 Maui residents said the department's proposal, which would close a half-dozen benefit eligibility offices in Maui County, displayed a "lack of compassion" and "nearsightedness."
However, after the dust of acrimony settled Thursday, lawmakers asked for and received ideas to help hold off the administration's proposed cuts.
The Maui News / CHRIS HAMILTON photo
Hawaii Department of Human Services employees and their clients line up on High Street in Wailuku on Thursday evening to protest a plan to streamline the department by eliminating 232 benefit eligibility workers statewide, automating services and shutting down all six of the department’s offices in Maui County.
The Maui residents, most of them DHS benefit eligibility workers and their clients, joined Oahu Rep. John Mizuno to express their outrage at Koller's intentions to eliminate 232 DHS caseworker jobs statewide. Apparently, this includes all of those positions and offices in Maui County. Department of Human Services leaders have declined to provide specific details, saying they need the Hawaii Government Employees Association union to come to the bargaining table.
DHS leaders were invited to Thursday's legislative briefing, but no department administrators showed up.
"I'm willing to bend, bend in the wind (to find a solution)," said Tasha Kama, mother of a special-needs child.
"I'm not trying to give you a false sense of security or hope," Mizuno told the audience. "But there are solutions out there. We are looking for a consensus.
"But if you hear someone from DHS say (the administration's plan) is a done deal, it isn't. This is not a dictatorship," Mizuno said.
He suggested that both the Legislature and the HGEA membership hold a no-confidence vote for Koller to send her a message.
One potential compromise bandied about on Thursday was keeping open at least one eligibility center or satellite office on each island, since, obviously, Hawaii residents can't just drive to the proposed central processing centers in Honolulu and Hilo to get help.
Mizuno was flanked at the David Trask Building by Maui County Reps. Joe Souki, Mele Carroll and Joe Bertram III; the latter two sit on the Human Services Committee with Mizuno. They were joined via telephone conference call by Oahu Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland, chairwoman of the Senate Human Services Committee.
Souki said he would like to see general excise tax increased or legalized gambling to fill in the state's financial gaps, but he said his colleagues have shot down most of his proposals, so far. They haven't supported his efforts to repeal a tax-incentive program that would generate $400 million annually for the state, Souki said.
Mizuno proposed a tax on soda to help prevent proposed layoffs to benefit eligibility employees, and everyone knows that soda isn't good for you anyway, he said.
"I'll tell you, if we are going to help people, we are going to need to raise taxes at some point," said Souki, a former speaker of the House.
Meanwhile, Bertram and Carroll said they were at Thursday's meeting primarily to hear their constituents' concerns, and, Bertram said, to listen to "common-sense solutions from you."
Other ideas from the public included running the state like a business, across-the-board sales tax increases and budget cuts to the Legislature.
"I will support tax increases, if that's what it takes," Mizuno said.
DHS client Justin Nobriga said he is certain that the loss of face-to-face contact will lead to an increase in theft and criminal convictions as people seek out food any way they can get it.
He also said the existing system is faulty enough as it is, requiring weeks to receive simple benefits. But even when people come in angry and frustrated, the caseworkers treat them with respect, Nobriga said. That's not possible with an automated phone system, he added.
DHS client Prentise Wylie said it took her three weeks to resolve an error and get her food stamps this month.
"But I can't imagine how long it would take if I had to do it through e-mail," Wylie said.
Now, there are 521 welfare eligibility positions statewide. In a letter Tuesday to union field services officer Sanford Chun, Koller confirmed the work-force reduction and reorganization plan.
But she said it is too early to say how much money the proposal would save. Koller did say it would cost $783,382 to automate the system.
Several meeting attendees scoffed at the idea of an automated phone system for something so delicate, and already frustrating, as applying for welfare benefits. What about all the people for whom English is a second language, they asked.
Or what about the elderly or homeless people, children or developmentally disabled people who can't maneuver through a complicated phone system, they asked. Many of them don't even have phones, the testifiers said.
Some people accused the Lingle administration of taking personal interaction out of the system to purposefully discourage people from applying for benefits, thus saving the state money.
Mizuno estimated the savings at between $50 million and $60 million annually. He said that's how much money he figures lawmakers will need to either generate through new revenue or cut elsewhere to save the 232 jobs.
Sanford Chun, whose union represents the workers, was also at the hearing, which was held in the HGEA Maui Division office. In recent weeks, he has clashed publicly with Republican Gov. Linda Lingle's administration over the streamlining plan.
The union says the plan leaves 66,000 of Hawaii's neediest people "out in the cold," without the face-to-face interaction with caseworkers, while Koller says the new system is proven to work in other states and will be much more efficient.
Koller has also repeatedly called on HGEA and Sanford Chun to meet with the administration and hammer out the details.
Koller and her administration have stated that the current system is limping along as is; and it is in need of modernization and consolidation. So, now that the state faces a $1.2 billion budget deficit, this is the time to institute a major reorganization by laying off nearly half the welfare eligibility positions statewide and closing 31 offices - including all six eligibility offices on Maui, Lanai and Molokai.
Instead, she proposes creating the two processing centers and having clients apply for benefits, such as food stamps, child care, and Medicare and Medicaid, online or by phone and fax.
If people need to speak to someone in person, other DHS offices and contractors, such as Maui Economic Opportunity Inc., will have people on hand to help them out, according to the proposal.
MEO Executive Director Sandy Baz said MEO staff members aren't trained for that kind of work. He equated the benefit eligibility workers to triage doctors in a hospital. They deal with people who are so stressed out and sick that they are often suicidal.
"Some people will actually die as a result of this," Baz predicted.
The proposal, officially called the Eligibility Processing Operations Division, just recently became public, and only after the union told Mizuno's committee about it during a hearing. The DHS administration has objected to the way the plan was leaked to the news media.
But the union has said Koller's people had the plan, which was written in part by a private consultant, for some time but she never bothered to tell DHS employees their jobs were in jeopardy.
"I find it very disappointing that the administration never even consulted our members when developing this reorganization," Sanford Chun said.
He said that last year the department laid off hundreds of other DHS employees, setting up the remainder to fail or struggle with massive caseloads.
"I find it inconceivable in this economic climate, where we will have more people than ever who need our services, that they would cut more positions," he said.
Bertram concurred, adding that DHS's own layoffs will contribute to the rolls of unemployed who need state assistance.
Mizuno said he next plans to host a conference on the DHS streamlining plan and more briefings on other islands.
* Chris Hamilton can be reached at email@example.com.
* This article includes a correction from the original published on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2010. A statement in support of a tax on soda was incorrectly attributed to Maui Rep. Joe Souki. The Maui News apologizes for the error.