One Year Ago: 19 OPA offices closed in Montana

“Hello, Montana Food Bank Network SNAP Application Hotline. This is Elizabeth.”

This is my standard greeting as I answer MFBN’s SNAP hotline. The hotline, which gets anywhere from zero to six calls a day, connects families and individuals with questions about SNAP to me.

SNAP is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as Food Stamps. It serves as our nation’s most important and most effective hunger-fighting program. SNAP also serves as a key program in allowing families to move from relying on food pantries to being more stable, both with access to food and financially. Not every community or every county is fortunate enough to have a food pantry for its members to utilize. SNAP is integral in standing in the gap in such communities so folks can access food and groceries, while also supporting local grocers and economies.

At the Montana Food Bank Network we recognize the importance of SNAP and have been working with the state of Montana since early 2016 to conduct outreach for the program and help eligible Montanans apply. My job as the SNAP Outreach Coordinator is to provide over the phone assistance (whether it is filling out an application or answering questions) to individuals who call the hotline, generate and distribute outreach materials to our 280 network partners and other community and social service organizations, train agencies how to offer SNAP application assistance, and work to expand the awareness of SNAP (who is eligible and how to apply) to the general public.

 

I have a great job and love getting to work with people across Montana, both in the context of service providers and clients. It was great to be the lady who got to say yes and help folks navigate a difficult process and bring them one step closer to getting SNAP benefits.

 

However, in January of 2018, a lot of that changed.

Faced with a $170 budget deficit, the state of Montana was forced to issue significant cuts to department budgets in January of this year. For the Department of Health and Human Services, where is SNAP is housed, this meant losing $49 million overall. This loss of funding has had devastating impacts on SNAP access in our state. The state closed 19 of our Offices of Public Assistance (OPAs) and laid off 30+ caseworkers. This was over half of Montana’s OPA offices- we are now down to 17 offices statewide staffed and open to the public.

Offices of Public Assistance process SNAP applications, issue benefits, and handle renewals. Fewer caseworkers now have an increased workload yet the same number of hours in the day, making it impossible to get ahead. The DPHHS-run helpline that clients can call to talk to a caseworker and find out the status of their case saw a spike in usage, with clients reporting wait times of 4-6 hours, or even up to 8 hours. Callers should be connected to a system that allows them to request a call-back, but they risk missing this return call and some clients have reported simply being disconnected from the system. Caseworkers are doing their best to keep up with demand but the average wait time to get approved for SNAP is now close to 4 weeks.

After the office closures in January, the number of call to MFBN’s hotline started increasing. However, it wasn’t just with folks who had questions or wanted to apply. As the months went by, it has regularly become individuals who are on SNAP and desperately trying to contact an OPA caseworker. In July I had a record 12 non-application calls, which all had specific questions and needed a caseworker. In 2018, my average phone conversation goes something like this:

“Hello, Montana Food Bank Network SNAP Application Hotline. This is Elizabeth.”

“Hi, I got a new EBT card in the mail and am trying to activate it but it keeps asking me for my PIN, but my old PIN won’t work, what do I do?”

Or

“Hi Elizabeth, I had a missed call from your office [they actually had a missed call from OPA] and I am returning the call to schedule my interview”

Or

“Oh my goodness, a live person! I have been trying to call for days and no one picks up. I need to update the information on my account- we moved two weeks ago”

In every one of these cases, I can’t help. I have to explain that I don’t work for the state, am not a caseworker, I am not authorized to make changes, nor do I have access to the database to do so. I can only provide suggestions on how they can connect to the people they really need to talk to. 95% of the time it is referring already frustrated clients to the DPHHS helpline.

 

I don’t like being a “no” person.

 

I don’t like not being able to help people. I feel client’s frustration because I have the same frustrations with getting my own questions answered from OPA. I don’t blame OPA -they are doing the best job they can when grossly understaffed. OPA can’t do it alone and definitely not at these funding and staffing levels. I have a sliver of faith things will get better as we have been promised that thanks to some budget restoration, OPA will be making their helpline more efficient and adding back a handful of caseworkers.

Even on days when it is frustrating-frustrating to not be able to help, frustrating to have to tell people what they have been told a thousand times, frustrating because it feel like I am giving them the run around- the frustration doesn’t outweigh the importance of the work. It is important for Montanans to know where they can get help. It is important for people to be there to answer questions from folks trying to get help.

That is what makes our work here at Montana Food Bank even more critical. Not just with SNAP assistance, although that is a crucial service we offer especially during the financial uncertainty of our state budget, but also with our network. Ensuring that, through our network of 280+ partners, people across the state can access basic food assistance is so important. SNAP is a piece of that puzzle, but when the whole puzzle is put together, the picture is a hunger free Montana.

 

Written by
Elizabeth Weaver, SNAP Outreach Coordinator

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