Oahu residents are under renewed order to live and work from home, yet hundreds of the island’s disabled commuters, including those considered most vulnerable to COVID-19, must still attend in-person office appointments to gain or maintain their eligibility for the Handi-Van.
The paratransit service’s eligibility center, located in the First Insurance Center on Ward Avenue, had previously shut down earlier in the pandemic as a safety precaution. At the time, riders’ eligibility was automatically extended.
Now, city officials say they’ve taken the necessary safety steps to keep that center open — even as Hawaii’s COVID-19 cases have spiked. The face-to-face eligibility visits will remain mandatory, they say, even as similar services to the general public such as DMV appointments have been suspended for safety reasons.
Among those seeking to renew their Handi-Van eligibility is 70-year-old Manoa resident Roy Katahira, who fractured his pelvis, hip and a rib in a fall earlier this year, according to his daughter, Sara Kanno. He’s been using the paratransit service for physical therapy visits ever since.
To keep using it past September, Katahira is required to visit the service’s eligibility center later this month for an in-person assessment to verify he’s still disabled, Kanno said.
Those appointments typically last between one and two hours, according to the program’s brochure.
“I would rather him not take the risk,” Kanno said last week. “He just has a lot of underlying health conditions,” including a previous heart surgery and an upcoming surgery to replace a blocked artery in his leg, she said.
Kanno, an Oahu native who currently lives in Japan, said she made repeated phone calls to city transportation and Handi-Van officials this past week requesting an alternative to visiting the Ward Avenue office. They’ve told her he’s required to attend in person.
“It seems silly to me,” Kanno said. “You can’t even go to a park with your wife or your husband, but you want my 70-year-old father to come in and get this evaluation?”
Many passengers who rely on the Americans with Disabilities Act-required Handi-Van service are seniors and residents with underlying health conditions. Those groups have a higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
City officials said this week that they need to keep the face-to-face appointments because without them they can’t properly determine whether the person must rely on the Handi-Van instead of TheBus.
Still, the eligibility center had closed under Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s first stay-at-home order in March, and those seeking to qualify at the time were given flexibility.
Riders looking to extend their eligibility when it was set to expire were granted a one-month extension, according to Department of Transportation Services spokesman Travis Ota. Those looking to qualify for the first time were given a month of presumptive eligibility.
The city opted to close the office in March “mainly due to the fact that the (eligibility center) did not have any COVID-19 safety precautions in place at the time,” Ota said in an email last week.
Now that several safety precautions are in place, including occupancy limits inside the office, screening questions and regular cleaning and disinfecting after each appointment, the city considers it safe enough to stay open.
Meanwhile, however, the island’s DMV centers remain closed though Sept. 23 under Caldwell’s latest emergency order, which aims to curb the outbreak of COVID-19 across Oahu.
On Thursday, state transportation officials announced that anyone whose license expires between March 16 and Sept. 29 can continue to legally drive through Sept. 30 to help “reduce the need for people to gather at driver’s licensing centers.”
Virtual meetings online aren’t an option for Handi-Van riders because the eligibility center can’t assess riders differently, Ota said.
It “must treat everyone who applies for paratransit eligibility equally,” Ota said. “It would be unfair to require some to come in-person … while evaluating others virtually.”
More than 473 people have visited the Handi-Van Eligibility Center since Aug. 1 seeking to verify that they’re disabled, according to DTS.
At least 246 more interviews are scheduled at the center through Sept. 23, when the city’s latest stay-at-home order expires.
Appointments to renew licenses have been canceled through that same period. That’s caused a lot of anxiety for local residents, Caldwell said during a press conference last week before the state announced its latest waivers.
In March, when the first stay-at-home order went into effect, the state also enacted a temporary waiver on all expired licenses and ID cards. Any licenses or cards set to expire up to May 15 were valid an additional 90 days under that waiver.
Meanwhile, for Kanno, the city’s updated safety precautions at the eligibility center still don’t justify the risk of her father attending.
“That’s fine that you feel so safe, but I don’t feel comfortable with that,” she said. “It’s just a different idea of risk, and I know they’re not trying to make anyone sick, but when the government isn’t even allowing two people to go to the beach together … it seems kind of, just, ridiculous.”
Her father plans to keep the appointment if he has to, she added.
“A lot of my parents’ generation are not the type” to resist, she added. “At the cost of their own health, it’s unfortunate.”
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