Cuts overload public assistance offices

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The need for public assistance in Montana is on the rise this winter, but according to some locals, that assistance is becoming harder to come by in the wake of major state budget cuts.

Matthew Lambert, a Bigfork resident and father of two, said he applied for renewal of his Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits in early December. When his claim had not come through by Jan. 8, he went down to the Kalispell Office of Public Assistance in person.

By the time he got off work at around 9 a.m., he said, the office had been open for an hour and a line of nearly 20 people stretched out in front of him. He met the same scene when he arrived Wednesday morning.

By Friday, Lambert said he had decided to wait as long as it took to ensure his family got the aid they depended on.

Lambert said it took about 2 1/2 hours of waiting to speak with a representative and claim his benefits for the month.

The Department of Health and Human Services, which is responsible for servicing clients of government aid programs such as Child Protection Services, Medicaid and SNAP, was hit with a $49 million budget cut.

The cut to Health and Human Services, the largest and most expensive government agency, accounts for about half of the total $76 million in cuts made to all state agencies following the special session of the Montana Legislature held in November.

In order to help cut costs, a total of 19 Health and Human Services offices across the state will close by the end of January. Those office locations include in Big Timber, Chinook, Choteau, Columbus, Conrad, Cut Bank, Deer Lodge, Dillon, Forsyth, Fort Benton, Glendive, Livingston, Malta, Red Lodge, Shelby, Sidney, Plentywood, Roundup and Thompson Falls.

The closures will directly affect about 2,200 people in those areas and save the state a total of about $700,000 over the next two years, according to Health and Human Services Public Information Officer Jon Ebelt.

Though the cuts will not affect benefits or services offered and residents of areas experiencing closures can apply for benefits online or through a helpline, the department’s clients in those areas needing to take care of business in person will have to travel to other offices where some clients say services are already inadequate.

Kari Merrill of Kalispell spent most of Thursday morning sitting in the Office of Public Assistance waiting room, stating that she preferred the two-hour wait in the office to dealing with the department’s call system.

Over the last week, she said she made 15 calls to the department to no avail.

Ebelt would not provide an average wait time but said callers who do not wish to stay on hold with the helpline for hours have the option to leave their information in a voicemail and have a staff member call back within two business days.

Merrill said she attempted to use the call-back service numerous times and waited up to three or four days but never received a return call.

“If you come in here, it’s the only way of getting things taken care of,” Merrill said. “But then you have to wait forever.”

Ebelt said the department is still brainstorming solutions to cases like Merrill’s.

“We certainly understand the clients that are frustrated with waiting on the phone and not getting calls back,” Ebelt said. “It’s also frustrating for staff to be dealing with this high call volume.”

The timing for the 19 office closures coincides with what Ebelt said is the busiest time of year for the number of applications coming in.

In November, Ebelt said the department received a total of about 10,500 applications statewide — its highest number in a year.

With that influx of applications, he said, comes an influx of calls.

The department’s 80 employees responsible for handling calls took an average of about 1,100 calls per day in November, around 144 an hour.

The average turnaround rate on applications, according to Ebelt, is about 20 days, but both Merrill and Lambert said it took them longer.

Montana Rep. Dave Fern, D-Whitefish, said the budget cuts that resulted in the office closures and further slowed the department’s services were an inevitable result of the state’s revenue problems.

“If there were alternative cuts that seemed less serious, they would have been made,” Fern said.

Though he said he felt confident that the cuts were made out of necessity, he expressed concern specifically for disabled and mentally ill clients of the Department of Health and Human Services who rely on the limited number of caseworkers to ensure their access to the services they need.

Fern feared the lack of personal help from caseworkers would impact people with limited mobility, transportation, internet and phone access and other limitations most.

“Without those people, it’s going to be dependent on DPHHS providing those services directly and finding alternatives,” Fern said.

One alternative Fern suggested was use of third-party providers to help process some of the excess claims.

According to Tracy Diaz, executive director of Community Acton Partnership of Northwest Montana, some of the Human Resource Development Councils in counties where the state offices are closing will work to help process some of the applications.

However, because Flathead, Lincoln and Lake counties — Community Action’s main service areas — will not experience closures, their office will not be among those helping process applications.

Ebelt said this was one of a few short-term solutions currently on the table for the department.

Another process he said the department is utilizing involves the redistribution of work virtually, allowing offices flooded with clients to redirect some of their cases to offices with smaller caseloads.

Though no new hires will be made in the wake of the cuts, one potential option for handling the massive call volumes internally, Ebelt said, was using a triage system to direct calls.

The system he proposed would direct more general questions that could be answered quickly to one line and longer questions involving applications and other issues to another.

That process, however, has not yet been enacted.

Ebelt said he was unsure what the future holds for those 19 offices after the next two years, but said he did expect the number of applications to decrease after the busy winter season.

“Folks that come into the offices or talk on the phone or meet with staff in person give us feedback, and we take that heart,” Ebelt said. “We actually welcome the feedback.”

Ebelt said another way clients can express their concerns is by contacting their local legistlators. The Department of Health and Human Services, he said, has open communication with legislators and is always looking for ways to improve.

To apply for benefits online, visit apply.mt.gov.

To contact Ebelt for public information questions, call (406) 444-0936.

Reporter Mary Cloud Taylor may be reached at 758-4459 or by email at mtaylor@dailyinterlake.com.

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