State sees soaring demand for food stamps, health insurance assistance

Demand for food assistance and health insurance in Hawaii grows during pandemic

HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Hawaii is seeing soaring demand for government-funded assistance programs as the pandemic keeps thousands out of work, state officials say.

Many of those seeking help have never applied for benefits before.

Now, they are relying on federal assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program ― commonly known as food stamps ― to pay for groceries.

In Hawaii, there is an average of $58 million in SNAP benefits per month ― up from $37 million in 2019, according to the Department of Human Services.

"We had roughly 160,000 or so pre-pandemic," said DHS director Pankaj Bhanot. "Now that number is exponentially higher."

With many people out of work, they're no longer receiving health insurance through their employer.

That’s triggered a 34% jump in Medicaid applications, but only about a 12% increase in actual enrollment, according to DHS statistics.

Bhanot said the extra $600 a week unemployment boost caused many people to be disqualified for assistance.

Now that the federal aid is no longer available, he believes more individuals will be looking for help.

Bhanot said the department's staffing is sufficient to handle the rising caseload for now.

"We are looking good at this point, but this can very rapidly change if budget crisis is such that we have to reduce the labor cost, which is our largest cost," Bhanot said.

Bhanot’s last day on the job will be Aug. 31. He said he made the difficult decision to step down due to health and family issues.

Bhanot injured his back late last year and then another medical problem surfaced in March.

“I fainted multiple times in less than an hour in the office, and that started this whole roller coaster of health problems,” he said.

Bhanot decided to stay on for several months to guide the department during this challenging time.

“This is the job that I always dreamt of. This was the promise to my grandmother that I’ll pick a career in public service, where I can make a difference in somebody else’s life,” Bhanot said.

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