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The Associated Press November 19, 2010, 11:37AM ET

Hawaii sued to hasten food stamp distribution

A federal lawsuit seeks to force Hawaii's government to more quickly hand out food stamps to families in need because the state has been falling behind.

The lawsuit filed Wednesday on behalf of food stamp recipients asks a judge to require the Department of Human Services to process the vast majority of food stamp applications within 30 days as required by federal guidelines. Hawaii has been processing about 78 percent of food stamp applications on time.

Food stamp applications have surged during the economic downturn, contributing to the backlog. An average of 133,043 people in Hawaii received food stamps last fiscal year, worth monthly payments of about $215 per person.

In addition, the department's staff has shrunk and the state lowered eligibility requirements for food stamps last month, which encouraged more people to apply.

"Failure to process applications in a timely manner means that thousands of households are denied desperately needed assistance to help them feed their families and suffer hunger as a result," according to the lawsuit filed by Lawyers for Equal Justice, the National Center of Law and Economic Justice and the Honolulu law firm of Alston Hunt Floyd & Ing.

Department of Human Services Director Lillian Koller had no comment Thursday because she had not yet been served with the lawsuit, spokeswoman Toni Schwartz said.

But the state has been working to interview more applicants by phone rather than in person, streamline its application processing, equalize workloads and reduce paperwork, Koller has said.

"We're doing everything possible to put food on the table for needy residents during these tough times," Koller said in a statement in September.

The lawsuit seeks class-action status on behalf of residents who have faced food stamp delays. It doesn't request monetary damages from the state, instead asking the courts to compel faster food stamp processing.

"If it's impacting enough people's lives in a serious fashion, then they're obligated to do something," said Victor Geminiani of Lawyers for Equal Justice. "It gives some incentive to the department to really get on the business of modernizing their systems."

The department had proposed a streamlining plan earlier this year that would have created two processing centers, closed all the state's welfare eligibility offices and laid off 228 public employees. The Democrat-run Legislature overrode Republican Gov. Linda Lingle's veto of a bill stopping the plan.

The federal government can fine states when they don't distribute at least 80 percent of food stamp benefits within a month after they were applied for. Hawaii hasn't been fined so far, Schwartz said.

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