BILLINGS — The Office of Public Assistance will close 19 locations in Montana because officials say the Legislature’s recent budget reductions forced them to cut back.
The Montana Department of Public Health & Human Services, which oversees Public Assistance, had to reduce its budget by $49 million, so it’s closing half of its 38 OPA offices by January 31.
The offices primarily assist low-income Montanans with health, food, and other benefits and aid.
The Department of Health and Human Services recently announced the closures are 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 19 offices set to close served less than one percent of the total population served in the state, according to DPHHS Communications Director Jon Ebelt.
Ebelt said OPA transitioned a few years ago into a system of online and phone access for people in need of assistance in an effort to expand the service.
The new model provided four processing centers located in Billings, Great Falls, Butte, and Missoula, which handle ongoing case working, including re-certifications and renewals.
“The new model allows a client to receive services by going into any Office of Public Assistance,” Ebelt stated in an email. “They aren’t limited to just the town where they live.”
Still, many clients do choose to visit the office in person.
OPA offices in Livingston, Sidney, Columbus, Glendive, and Red Lodge had the greatest number of in-person visits, with 369, 223, 146, 122, and 114 respectively.
The greatest number of clients receiving Medicaid, SNAP and/or TANF is highest in Livingston, where 3,301 people are enrolled in Medicaid.
In Sidney, there are 688 people receiving SNAP benefits.
The office in Malta has been vacant for some time, according to Ebelt.
Each of the 16 employees at these 19 offices have been offered the opportunity to transfer to other OPA offices in the state, according to Ebelt.
The offices in Livingston, Red Lodge, Sidney, and Columbus have the largest number of employees with three staff members.
In a statement from DPHHS, the office pledged to “maintain an open dialogue with the communities during this transition time.”
The office will do everything it can to minimize the impact on clients, according to the DPHHS statement, and that will include reaching out to community partners to ensure clients know about the available resources.
“One option we’re considering is sending staff from nearby offices to communities impacted by the office closures to assist clients, if needed, and if budget and/or staff availability allows,” the statement adds.
Clients in the affected areas are encouraged to create an online account.