Honolulu City Council approves federal COVID-19 funeral assistance to COFA citizens June 6, 2022 by admin Mahalo for supporting Honolulu Star-Advertiser. Enjoy this free story! A federal program grants financial death benefits to families who lost members of their household to COVID-19, but the program largely left out citizens of the Freely Associated States who live in the United States through the Compacts of Free Association. The Honolulu City Council plans to remedy that by using federal COVID-19 relief funds. The COFA agreement allows citizens from the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the Republic of Palau to live, work and travel in the US without a visa in exchange for using their land for military positioning in the Pacific. However, the 1996 federal Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, better known as the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, stripped COFA citizens of their eligibility for most federal benefits despite being legally allowed to stay indefinitely in the country. Because of this, COFA citizens were also unable to apply for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s COVID-19 funeral assistance fund. On Wednesday the Honolulu City Council voted unanimously to approve the city’s Capital Improvement Plan, which included about $167 million for projects funded through federal America Rescue Plan Funds. The federal government awarded states and municipalities millions of dollars of relief funds meant to offset the public health and economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Honolulu was awarded $386 million to be received in two installments. The city administration largely took control of the first $193 million of the federal funds distributed in June 2021, but the Council was able to appropriate the second $193 million, which is expected to come this summer. The death benefits program for citizens of the Freely Associated States is part of the plan for the second tranche of ARPA funding. The FEMA program will give households up to $9,000 to cover funeral expenses, which include service costs, transfer-of-remains costs and burial costs. The city’s program would aim to match the FEMA benefit, similarly giving up to $9,000 for funeral expenses to those who were unable to qualify for the federal program. Although the city program is estimated to cost $2 million, the department that operates it will determine the final cost. Council member Esther Kia’aina has long called for ratification of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. “When I saw the FEMA program, I just shook my head,” she said. “I said, ‘Unbelievable. I already know what’s going to happen. They’re going to be ineligible.’ And that’s what happened.” As of mid-May, FEMA had distributed $2.65 million and processed 510 applications in Hawaii. Fourteen were rejected because the applicant was insured or had a prepaid funeral. There are 210 applications that are still waiting for more information to be processed. Kia’aina added that although COFA citizens were unable to access the FEMA death benefit, Pacific Islanders were disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Although they only make up 4% of the state’s population, they account for 16% of deaths, behind only the Filipino and Native Hawaiian communities. “We all talk about COVID impact. There is no greater impact than death. So the data demonstrates that they were disproportionately impacted vis-a-vis the other populations in this state,” she said. “As a matter of equity, the federal government has made clear to the state and the city that in the distribution of funding related to COVID, that we are equitable in the manner how we treat people. … It’s the right thing to do.” We Are Oceania, a nonprofit serving Micronesian and Pacific Island communities, worked with families who lost loved ones during COVID-19. The nonprofit’s CEO, Josie Howard, said that before the pandemic it was a custom for the Micronesian community to pay respects and offer both emotional and financial support to families. “I think a lot of the times when there was a long line outside a church or funeral home, it’s because we’ve come to pay our respect, and when we do that we also bring money, so that really helps the family,” she said. “And when we weren’t able to do that, another way of supporting was taken away.” Howard said it is culturally important to return the body of the deceased back to the land where the person was born, but that was often not possible during COVID-19 because the borders to the Freely Associated States were closed. If families were able to arrange the transfer, she estimated that it would cost over $10,000. Paulina Perman of Kokua Kalihi Valley Comprehensive Family Services said many families have struggled with what to do with the bodies of loved ones during the pandemic. “In our culture, cremation is foreign and is absolutely a taboo,” she said. “The pandemic really put a strain on families. They were arguing, debating about whether they should do it or not, and how they could afford that.” KKV helped families who originally would have been ineligible for the FEMA death benefit find ways to qualify and obtain some funds. “We had to look for family members that are citizens or friends that are willing to sponsor the application,” Perman said. COFA citizens who were ineligible for the FEMA benefit could find a US citizen family member to sponsor their application. However, all of the paperwork for the funeral expenses had to be in the sponsor’s name, which could be complicated and place a heavy burden on the sponsor. Kia’aina said that although the city’s death benefits program is a step in the right direction, there is more work to be done to ensure that COFA citizens are able to access the federal benefits that were taken away in the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. In 2020, US Sen. Maize Hirono and US Rep. Ed Case led the fight to restore Medicaid eligibility for COFA citizens. Hirono and Case have both introduced the Compact Impact Fairness Act to make COFA citizens eligible to receive all federal benefits, which include nutrition assistance, Supplemental Security Income and FEMA death benefits. “As we work to pass this important legislation at the federal level, I’m encouraged to see county officials in Hawaii taking steps to use federal funds to support our COFA citizens,” Hirono said. Case added that without the federal programs, the financial burden often falls on local governments to provide support for COFA citizens. “I think it’s a very unfair situation. And it has been a festering sore. I fully support the Compact Agreements. … I support the provisions that allow citizens of those countries to … live and work in our country,” he said. “What I don’t support is the federal government not supporting, through benefits and other means, the communities where the residents have chosen to come.” Although the federal government does provide payments to Hawaii through Compact Impact Aid, Case said it has been inadequate when compared with the amount the state spends. “They can either open up the federal benefits to Compact residents, in which case the federal government would provide that assistance directly to the residents and to the folks that work with them,” he said. “Or they can increase the Compact Impact Aid … if they want to pay a lump sum to the state of Hawaii to compensate the state for the expenses to take care of the Compact residents. That’s fine with me, too, but … that bill is $288 million per year right now. That’s a total amount that states are paying for Compact residents and the federal government should be paying.” The Capital Improvement Plan that contains the city death benefit program for COFA citizens passed unanimously in the City Council and awaits Mayor Rick Blangiardi’s signature, which he has committed to give.