State moves toward one vendor to provide temporary assistance services in Montana

DPHHS previously held contracts with a dozen organizations across the state

By: - September 18, 2023 7:09 pm

The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services (Photo by Eric Seidle/ For the Daily Montanan).

The state health department will be awarding one contract for the state’s cash assistance and employment training program, with current businesses engaged in this work across the state likely becoming subcontractors.

The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services told two interim committees last week that it plans to move to a single vendor to administer the social safety net program instead of working with multiple organizations across the state.

The announcement rankled Democrats and some service providers who said this move could potentially close employment offices that served regions of the state for decades.

Rep. Mary Caferro, D-Helena, said this meant “one more hand in the cookie jar,” during a health budget interim committee last week. She said her family used the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

“Another layer of bureaucracy that I don’t see as necessary,” Caferro said. “I think the system is working well, and do not appreciate that the current businesses will now be working under someone else, and it could jeopardize many of those businesses and then hurt people in the long run.”

DPHHS Director Charlie Brereton said the model of awarding one contract to administer Temporary Assistance for Needy Families is similar to how the state currently handles other programs like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). He said this new system would add more accountability and be more focused on outcomes, as well as “significantly reduce” administrative burden in terms of contract management.

“The intent of this exercise is certainly not to place our local service providers in a precarious position or to put them out of business, they are invaluable to DPHHS,” he said. “Whomever wins the contract, and is awarded the contract as a result of this RFP, will be required to build on and leverage existing infrastructure across the state to the extent possible.”

Brereton said the potential contractor would be encouraged to offer virtual services but virtual-only was not on the table. He said walk-in centers would likely be in urban areas and virtual service offerings would connect clients in rural, harder-to-access areas.

TANF in Montana also provides training for a set number of hours a week to individuals enrolled in the program, which is also intended to promote financial stability.

Jasyn Harrington, the Executive Director of the Career Training Institute in Helena, told the Children, Families, Health and Human Services interim committee last week that service providers like hers as well as other organizations across the state provide services that have a direct impact on Montana’s workforce shortage.

“We’re embedded in our local communities and have established working relationships with local social service providers, training providers, post secondary institutions, and employers– all in an effort to assist individuals in overcoming barriers to employment and enter the workforce,” she said during public comment.

She said the majority of current contractors, 12 of them– including six that also provide SNAP employment training, would not be able to participate in the RFP process for the sole contract, “because most don’t have the administrative capacity to administer a statewide program.”

A program advocate for employment agency Career Futures in Butte gave an example of the importance of one-on-one case management. He said a mother of a small child fled a “personal circumstance” and landed in Butte, alongside the child’s grandmother, without a place to live. The mother became enrolled in TANF and the grandmother met with him.

“She talked about her passion for being a caregiver in an old folks home, and so I talked to her about taking (Certified Nursing Assistant) classes to become educated and licensed in a field that was high demand and high pay in our community,” he said. “She took these classes over the past month, she’s passed her exam, she has received a $20 an hour job in our community. Her daughter is now employed. They are housed.”

“By having that one-on-one case management in our office, they had the help they needed to get jobs and find housing.”

Lynda Schuldheifv, a workforce development manager for Human Resource Council in Missoula, said $12,000 ​​went toward training program achievements and certifications to clients through TANF funds. And funds also went toward services like insurance and work clothes.

“We feel one statewide provider is not the right solution for Montana, is likely to move us backwards instead of forward and limit the services to our clients, especially in rural communities,” she said.

Sen. Mary Ann Dunwell, D-Helena, said during public comment that when other states have transitioned to a single provider, they got a one-size-fits-all solution that doesn’t work in Montana. She said streamlining was important but when it could lead to adding administration or reducing services that it could mean throwing the “baby out with the bathwater.”

“There’s one thing about red-tape reduction. We all agree that’s important and streamlining. There’s another thing about giving up the personal face to face service and throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Ruth Burke, executive director of District 11 Human Resource Council said her organization serves 8,000 people per year, and has been operating in the community for 58 years. She said she didn’t see there being any savings for the state.

“If the state hires them to do the contract, and they hire us to do the contract, we are doing the work and there’s just an extra layer of bureaucracy between us,” she said. “If the state chooses to go out for one provider, you’re either adding administration or you are reducing the services that are available, particularly in rural counties.”

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Nicole Girten
Nicole Girten

Nicole Girten is a reporter for the Daily Montanan. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune as a government watchdog reporter. She holds a degree from Florida State University and a Master of Science from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.