The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services (Photo by Eric Seidle/ For the Daily Montanan).
Montana is investing $5.5 million of federal pandemic funds to help cover licensed child care costs over the next year for the state’s healthcare workers, Gov. Greg Gianforte and the Department of Public Health and Human Services announced in a press release on Monday.
But one longtime child care advocate and lawmaker said the money could be more wisely spent, and the program would only exacerbate the child care shortage in Montana.
The money will be available for parents and guardians who work in health care, behavioral health, disability services and long-term care settings and will benefit approximately 600 children. Eligible families must pay a monthly copayment of up to $100, according to the news release from the Governor’s Office.
“Over the last 20 months, Montana health care workers have made tremendous sacrifices as they’ve treated and cared for Montanans. Many are moms and dads who, like all Montanans, have faced a long-standing child care shortage, only made worse by the pandemic,” Gianforte said in the release.
Montana’s total child care capacity only meets 44 percent of estimated demand; infant capacity meets only 34 percent of estimated demand, and 66 percent of Montana counties are classified as a child care desert — any geographic area where child care supply meets less than a third of the potential demand, according to DPHHS.
But increasing the number of children who will need child care, Rep. Mary Caferro, D-Helena, said the program will further burden child care workers.
“There is not the capacity to take care of more children; they are not even able to take care of the children that need care now,” she said.
And, she said, the program misses the mark in solving the child care problem in the state: “It’s a Band-Aid over a bullet hole, and it does not address the root issue: low wages in child care and healthcare.”
Instead, she said the money should have gone to bonuses and increased wages for child and healthcare workers.
Last month, DPHHS announced it was spending $31 million of federal ARPA money to help increase licensed child care capacity in the state. The funds can be used for paying rent, mortgage or utilities, payroll and benefits, health and safety, facility maintenance, personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies and goods to continue child care, such as diapering supplies and other care materials.
To be eligible for the new $5.5 million program, at least one parent in the household must provide direct care services to patients or clients in one of the following health care sector categories: health care, behavioral health, disability services, or long-term care settings to include home and community-based services, assisted living, skilled nursing, or home health.
The money will be allocated on a first-come, first-serve basis, prioritizing employees who work in facilities reliant on Medicaid funding and earn between 185% and 250% of the federal poverty level. For example, for a family of four to be eligible, they would need an annual income from approximately $49,025 to $66,250. A complete list of eligibility requirements can be found on the DPHHS website.
“We urge Montanan providers and businesses to encourage all potential eligible employees to apply,” DPHHS Director Adam Meier said in the press release.
For help with the application process, families can contact a regional Child Care Resource and Referral Agency or call 1-844-406-2772 from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday.
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