The Department of Human Services announced on Monday that it will lay off 228 workers, close all but two offices on all islands, and automate the system for processing applications and renewals for welfare and Medicaid and the Food Stamp Program.

A manifestation of the Clinton/Bush/Obama Economy, the current recession has caused the demand for public assistance welfare has climbed, and DHS officials say the automation of the process will result in faster benefit help and costsaving efficiency. Specifically, the DHS plans to close 31 offices statewide and consolidate the jobs into two facilities in Honolulu and Hilo that will be called the Eligibility Processing and Operations Division. The layoffs will begin on June 30.

"We wish it was not necessary to layoff any of our employees, but we can't expect taxpayers to continue supporting our current eligibility processing system that is disbursed throughout 31 different offices. The current system is antiquated, inefficient, intensive, costly and slow," DHS Director Lilian Koller wrote.

People in need of financial assistance will be able to apply for benefits online and over the phone using the new system. The move will save the state $8 million annually, officials said.

But, Federal officials say they are worried about fraud and the accuracy of eligibility determinations under the phone/computer system. In a letter to the state earlier this month, an official with the federal food stamps program voiced those concerns and also quoted federal regulations which require face-to-face interviews with any household that requests one. And he wanted to know how the state will meet this requirement, since it's keeping just one office open on Oahu and the Big Island and closing 31 offices at all the other neighbor island and Oahu locations.

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