Two years ago, lawmakers in Montana passed groundbreaking legislation to open new doors for people with disabilities and their families. This new law has now been fully implemented and made available to help change the lives of thousands of Montanans.

Senate Bill 399, passed in the 2015 Legislature, allows eligible individuals with disabilities to establish “ABLE accounts’’ that resemble the tuition programs that have long existed under the tax code. The new ABLE accounts will allow more autonomy and control over personal saving decisions and spending on qualified disability expenses, while protecting eligibility for Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income, and other important benefits for people with disabilities.

Why does a qualified individual need an ABLE Account? Without these accounts, many people with disabilities have very limited avenues to save and allow for further independence. The law recognizes the obvious: People with disabilities face added costs and burdens that aren’t covered by government programs, and the state should not stand in the way of these individuals saving their own money to be used for disability-related expenses.

While there are annual contribution limits and caps on account balances, any person, such as a family member, friend or the person with a disability, may contribute to an ABLE account for an eligible beneficiary. One added benefit to Montana’s program is that our state law provides an income tax deduction of up to $3,000 per year for certain contributors.

In the past, folks with disabilities were essentially penalized for saving money and being financially responsible. Giving people with disabilities the power to save their own money or use contributions from others can help them improve their living conditions with an eye toward accessibility, find appropriate transportation options so they can hold a job, or use for additional education or training to help them become more independent.

There are specific requirements set by federal law to be eligible to open an ABLE account. The first option is if you are a person who is entitled to benefits on the basis of disability or blindness under the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program or under the Social Security disability, retirement and survivors program. The second option is for someone to submit proof that meets the criteria for a disability certification. In both cases, an eligible individual’s disability must have occurred before age 26.

The implementation of SB399 was no easy venture since no appropriation came to get it off the ground. Efforts to find the appropriate vendor for ABLE accounts were difficult. However, the state ultimately contracted with the same vendor, Ascensus, which offers Montana’s tuition savings program. Accounts are easy to open and manage online, offer a variety of investing and saving options, and a dedicated call center is available for assistance.

So far, 15 individuals have opened an ABLE account, but we know there are many more Montanans who are eligible.

Now fully implemented, these accounts can improve the lives of Montanans across the state. If you think you or someone you know may qualify, please visit mt.savewithable.com.

Jon Bennion chairs the Montana ABLE Program Oversight Committee. Sheila Hogan is director of the Department of Public Health and Human Services.

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