It’s quiet at the Waipahu Department of Human Services unit.

After the brouhaha in the Legislature this year over whether to shut down such offices and consolidate operations, you would have thought the places would be hopping.

Civil Beat went down to the Waipahu Civic Center last week to see how things were going at the Department of Human Service’s West Oahu Unit. This is the place where Hawaii residents apply for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Commonly known as food stamps or EBT in other states, the program offers some 141,293 struggling residents financial help for one of life’s basic necessities: nutrition.

During a time when the state continues to recover from the worst recession since the Great Depression, what did we find? A quiet office — which the department says is a result of a new push for interviews by telephone, instead of in person, part of its efforts to simplify the application process.

A few people idled on one of 10 plastic chairs in the room, filling out applications or reading magazines. Fans whirred, while employees typed quietly on their computers. Most had come to fill out applications for food stamps. One person came in for her interview and then left.

By contrast, the busy unemployment office can be heard from inside the SNAP office, which had propped open its glass doors due to a hiccupy air conditioner. Across the way, at the Hawaii Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, a crowd of people — big, heavy set bald guys — filled the hallway. Inside there were two full rows of people, some with bloodshot eyes, waiting for unemployment benefits. Still others, waited, standing on the side, shifting from foot to foot or leaning against walls and doors. Children were crying on their parents’ laps, their colicky, hoarse fervor echoing urgently throughout the three-story, open-air building.

But just across the open courtyard, all is calm at the SNAP office.

It wasn’t always this way for the Department of Human Services.

Early this year, the department had responded to crashing state revenues and a backlog of requests for assistance with a plan known as Eligibility Processing Operations Division (EPOD). Gov. Linda Linda purported that the strategy would save the state $8 million and speed up processing times by streamlining the welfare application and renewal processes for Medicaid, welfare and nutrition benefits. This would have meant consolidating offices, closing 31 locations and eliminating 228 staff positions. But the Legislature stopped the plan.

Wait Times Improving

In June 2008, just as the global economy started to melt down, 97,845 people and 49,599 households in Hawaii were receiving SNAP benefits. Two years later, in June 2010, the number had swelled to 141,293 people and 71,011 households receiving benefits.

Earlier this year, the department was slow enough on response time to warrant a warning from the federal government. The department was required to respond to all SNAP applications within 30 days — emergency applications needed responses within a week. The federal government wants states to start to process at least 90 or 95 percent of applicants within this time frame. In the 80th percentile, states receive warnings. And in the 70th percentile, states are penalized.

Wait times for assistance had been increasing since 2007, but in the crux of the recession, the backlogs mounted to a high this year. Oahu applications slipped from an 89-percent timely response rate to a 78-percent timely response rate during the current fiscal year ending October 1, 2010. Some interviews, which would approve eligibility, could not be scheduled for two or three months — long past the 30-day requirement.

“We were right there where (the federal government) was warning that we were about to get penalized because we couldn’t keep up with the backlog,” said Toni Schwartz, public informations officer for the Department of Human Services.

Human services leaders decided to make the department more efficient and more modern without shutting down offices or laying off staff, as EPOD would have done.

“It’s not overnight change,” said Pankaj Bhanot, division administrator of the Department of Human Services and the person charged with eliminating the backlog. “What we want to do is incremental. We want to see what we can do now, at this time, at this point to implement changes very quickly.”

Shift to Phone Applications Helped

The department received approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in September 2009 to conduct initial application and renewal interviews over the phone, instead of in person. Residents were then allowed to submit applications through mail, fax or in person. Relying more on phone interviews cuts down on the wait time. Today, roughly 80 percent of applications are received by phone. Some welfare offices, like the one in Makiki, receive 100 percent of applications through the phone, though others, such as the one in Wahiawa, are as low as 74 percent.

“We’re going ahead and we’re doing the modernization,” said Lillian Koller, director of the Department of Human Services. “We’re doing the maximum telephone use, and we’re having much more success now than we did before because of the phone.”

More changes are on the horizon for the department. In May, the department held a conference call with other states — New Mexico, Arizona, Idaho, Michigan, Washington, and Florida, to name a few — that had successfully improved their benefits programs. It also talked to the federal government about waivers the state could receive or other steps Hawaii could take to make policies simpler. The department then chose one of the states, New Mexico, for a group of five program administrators to observe the process in person. New Mexico had faced similar challenges of increasing case loads with no available extra resources, but by modernizing its system, it was able to shorten the average applicant’s wait from 21 days to 6.2 days.

“Tight budgetary constraints led to looking into the possibilities of how we can maintain the high standard of delivery of service and how we can do it timely,” said Bhanot. “That’s the bottom line.”

State Considers Shift to ‘Process Management’

The team that observed New Mexico has submitted an official report to the federal government and will meet this month to determine concrete outcomes. A concept that the department is particularly intent on exploring is a transition from case load management —in which cases are assigned to one employee who oversees the case throughout its life — to process management. Process management would train employees to be adept at all parts of the welfare process and would allow them to work on any case when the help is needed. The department’s ultimate goal is to eliminate any wait time and make the approval process immediate.

The department’s next step is to identify processes and policies that could be simplified or eliminated to make it easier on the staff and smoother for the client. The group will meet to specifically target changes within the process that don’t need federal waivers or changes in state law so that the improvements can be executed quickly. They are working to match state policy with guidelines from the federal government, which provides the funding for both the SNAP program and welfare assistance. Starting later this month, all programs will meet together via video conference to create and implement changes, based on the trip to New Mexico.

“It’s a culture change,” said Bhanot. “It’s a shift in the very culture with have grown up with here in Hawaii, as far as service delivery of public welfare is concerned. We would have to make those serious changes in our attitude and in the way we do business. And I think we are ready.”