Director delayed exit to help with pandemic, in latest state helm change

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HONOLULU (KHON2) — The head of one of the state’s largest departments — Human Services — is stepping down, this after both the labor and tax departments recently had turnover at the top.

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Human Services is the state’s largest department in dollar terms, responsible for everything from Med-Quest to food and cash assistance, childcare, keiki and adult protective services, public housing and more. Pankaj Bhanot has worked there for decades, the past several years as its director.

“Having a 21-year career in the Department of Human Services under four different governors and getting the opportunity — the first civil servant in human services to get to the top coming from the ranks and getting to the top — that speaks volumes that giving an opportunity to a career civil servant to see how he would do I think it is exemplary,” Bhanot said. “This career is a culmination of a tremendous  dream for a 14-year-old who gave a promise to his grandmother that he will choose a career in public service so I can make a difference in somebody else’s life.”

Now he says it’s time to step aside, something doctors and others advised him last fall to get ready to do, over what he says are serious but not life threatening health concerns. Bhanot initially planned an early 2020 exit, then the pandemic hit.

“When I approached the governor,” Bhanot said, recalling his conversations with Gov. David Ige in early 2020, “I said I’m not going to leave right away. The crisis that we are in, this is what we are all about, this is what human services is all about, caring for those who are in need.”

Bhanot says he has tried to lead the department through this pandemic guided by three fundamental principals: “First, ohana nui, the multigenerational and integrated approach to alleviating poverty by addressing the social determinants of health and well-being. Second, our true belief in aloha spirit. And third, we as human beings depend on each other for our collective existence and we have proven it during this pandemic in particular. We have seen such an influx of applications for SNAP (food assistance) and Medicaid and demand for childcare, we were able to come through for our community.”

Helping in that mission along with more than 2,000 other staff is Deputy Director Cathy Betts, who will take over as director Sept. 1, as Bhanot winds down his last month.

“I’ve been able to see his legacy and train under him and learn as much as I can from him,” Betts said. “I’m really concerned about families’ ability to weather this economic crisis and ensuring that they’re safe and that they’re healthy and that they have access to food and nutrition and healthcare.”

She’ll be the latest deputy to take the reins at a crisis-critical department. A Department of Labor deputy, Anne E. Perreira-Eustaquio, stepped up in June when Scott Murakami went on leave in the midst of the burgeoning unemployment crisis. In July at the Department of Taxation, Deputy Director Damien Elefante took the helm at tax when Interim Director Rona Suzuki stepped aside during Senate confirmation.

The team at DHS says their department has been functioning smoothly and that the leadership transition is expected to be seamless.

“We saw the writing on the wall very early,” Betts says of the pandemic. “We started to prepare in February because we saw the pandemic was growing. We saw what was happening on the continent and worldwide and we knew we needed to make some decisions to execute on a strategy that would ensure quick service delivery, ensure folks weren’t left hanging, ensure that folks could apply for various assistance online and assure that it was quick and efficient.

DHS has kept with rapid turnarounds of food, cash, medical and other safety net program approvals for tens of thousands of people who never needed it before plus the hundreds of thousands regularly served.

“We’re optimistic that more federal assistance will be coming out of Congress but we just can’t rely on that,” Betts said. “So we really need to shore up our social service safety net here in the state and so far we’ve done a really good job of that.”

“People reach out to me all the time and say I got snap benefits within 2 days and the people who were helping me were so kind and nice on the phone,” Betts says, adding she is ready for what may or may not come next. Her outgoing boss agrees.

“Cathy is a very competent, a very sharp, smart, very stable leader who will be able to take this work forward,” he said. “Professionally the biggest moment of pride is our staff. It’s their hard work daily and making so many sacrifices on a personal level to make sure residents of Hawaii who need our assistance are taken care of.”

Pandemic-related data from DHS:

SNAP Benefits in Hawaii

In 2019, there was an average of $37 million in SNAP benefits per month. Since March, due to the impact of COVID-19, there is now an average of $58 million in SNAP benefits per month.

SNAP Supplement in Hawaii

Since March 2020, the SNAP Emergency Supplements have helped more than 60,000 households with more than $56 million for individuals and families in need.

Pandemic EBT Food Assistance for Students in Hawaii

More than 93,500 students who receive free or reduced-price meals in Hawaii have received, or will soon receive, $360 each in food assistance. That equates to $33,437,250 in support.”

Source: Department of Human Services
Source: Department of Human Services

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