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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, March 11, 2010

Social service plan will hurt neediest

By Bill Carroll

Lillian Koller, director of the Department of Human Services, in defense of her recent proposal to "reorganize" the Benefit, Employment and Support Services Division (Advertiser, March 2), makes a number of claims which not only manipulate reality in order vindicate her specious decision-making, but also fail to make a minimum of common sense.

As a former eligibility worker in benefit services for 26 years, I know what the impact of such a slapdash and poorly thought out "reorganization" will be: nothing short of disaster. A disaster for Hawai'i's poor, elderly and disabled, who will most immediately suffer from Koller's dismantling of the division, which will certainly result in long delays in receiving assistance, and inaccurate eligibility and payment determinations.

The current proposal, which panders to the "slash-the-government-payroll-no-matter-who-gets-hurt" crowd, will cut the staff of eligibility workers by more than half, closing a majority of the 50 welfare offices and remove all to a grossly understaffed "welfare warehouse," intentionally inaccessible to clients except by telephone, e-mail and fax, intentionally dehumanizing the welfare application process.

Koller claims, counter-intuitively, that this will speed the processing of benefits, as well as make the process more accurate in its determinations. Unfortunately, she makes this claim by invoking the "less is more" mantra, chanted by right-leaning bureaucrats since Reagan's time .

The processing of welfare applications will always require human beings; workers often must interpret what the information written on an application means, and to make determinations of eligibility and payment.

Welfare applicants are not the sophisticated folks Koller seems to believe them to be, and applications are very seldom complete, more often wrong, and frequently illegible. Applications need explanation, which can only come through a worker's contact with the client. Eliminating "in-person" contact, which Koller trumpets as the magic bullet that will end wasteful time consumption, will simply not reduce the amount of time an eligibility worker takes in making an eligibility and payment determination; it just doesn't work that way.

Some kind of contact will always be necessary, and a telephone call, just like an "in-person" interview, takes as long as it takes. In many instances, "in-person" contact is much more desirable for a speedy and accurate determination of need. Moving from the current system, which she calls "horse and buggy," to the dehumanized "welfare warehouse" system, which seems to be Koller's preferred future, will take the eligibility worker completely out of the community. Here the costs are less quantifiable, but nonetheless real.

It may be that in other states where more homogenous welfare populations exist, the "welfare warehouse" system can work, at least on paper. Koller claims success for other Mainland states, which have made similar transformations. I've heard, on the other hand, from Florida and Arizona that delays in processing food-stamp applications are so long these states are facing federal sanctions.

This "reorganization," is only the latest in a long series of bad policy decisions made by Koller and her very expensive entourage of Mainland consultants. As a consequence, she has taken the Benefit, Employment and Support Services Division a division which for decades could boast of one of the country's highest accuracy rates of eligibility and payment determination and turned it into a division than can barely keep up with the work it has to do, let alone do it well.

This proposal should be shelved, along with Koller and her consultants.