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Health department: More Montanans seeking public assistance due to COVID-19 outbreak

DPHHS: More Montanans seeking public assistance due to COVID-19 outbreak
Posted at 3:08 PM, Apr 29, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-29 17:08:05-04

Thousands of Montanans have been applying for state assistance during the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak.

Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS) Director Sheila Hogan said nearly 5,300 more Montanans opened an online account in the last 30 days to access public assistance programs the agency provides such as SNAP food assistance, TANF cash assistance or health coverage.

There are currently over 25,000 Montanans that have an online account at apply.mt.gov to apply for, renew, report changes and check their benefits online.

“While we aren’t able to provide in-person assistance in our Offices of Public Assistance at this time while we work to limit the spread of COVID-19, we are pleased that thousands more clients are able to access their benefits remotely,” Hogan said. “This is very important because we want to make sure that Montanans have access to the safety net programs our agency provides.”

DPHHS has moved some staff to serve clients through the Public Assistance Helpline at 1-888-706-1535. Typically, the helpline handles about 1,000 calls a day, but, during the month of April the hotline has averaged over 1,750 calls daily.

“Staff who normally provide in-person assistance are now serving clients through the helpline,” Hogan said. “We continue to work with our clients utilizing all the technology tools we have at our disposal.”

Hogan also noted calls to the helpline rose to as high as 2,400 a day in early April. She is encouraging clients who call the helpline to schedule an appointment for a call back if they are placed on hold while calling.

“Our clients have appreciated this option, and a call is normally able to be scheduled within 24 hours,” Hogan said. “Our wait times do tend to fluctuate, so we encourage clients to utilize this option if it works for them.”

The helpline wait time currently is approximately 10 minutes. However, DPHHS notes that given the increase in unemployment numbers and the increase in the number of applications for public assistance programs in recent weeks that could change.

The application numbers for SNAP in the first half of April increased by 70% when compared to March numbers. As a result, helpline hours have been extended to 7 a.m. until 6 p.m.

“We have continued to see an increase in the need for public assistance programs in April,” Hogan said. “We want the public to know that we will be working as quickly as possible to determine eligibility during this time. The best thing an individual can do is open an online account. That is the fastest way to begin the application process.”

Clients can submit applications via the OPA fax number at 1-877-418-4533 or by mail at Field Offices of Public Assistance, PO Box 202925, Helena MT 59620.

SNAP benefits can be checked at 1-866-850-1556. Montanans are also encouraged to reach out to OPA office staff through email. A list of OPA office email contact information can be found here .

DPHHS reports there are currently over 107,000 people receiving SNAP benefits in Montana.