When Gov. Greg Gianforte ended the state's pandemic emergency declaration June 30, it signaled the end of expanded federal food assistance for Montanans, though the administration points to other measures it's taken to boost them temporarily.
Those who participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) food assistance program will see their benefits go back to the standard amount in October. The state was getting an additional emergency allotment from the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service under the emergency declaration.
"Following careful consideration, it was determined that Montana’s state of emergency declaration is no longer needed for our COVID-19 response," Gianforte spokesperson Brooke Stroyke said in an email last week.
Since January, all 49,000 households in Montana that received SNAP benefits were getting the extra federal boost.
Stroyke said last week the state will continue some additional food benefits using money from the American Rescue Plan Act passed by Congress earlier this year.
One of the commissions providing input on how Montana will spend its ARPA money recommended a 15% increase in SNAP benefits from July through September. Gianforte approved that recommendation.
Jon Ebelt, a spokesperson for the state health department, said in August the department will also issue a one-time benefit of $375 to households with kids ages 0-18 who received SNAP benefits over the summer or are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals. He said about 75,000 children in the state could be eligible.
But in a letter last week to Gianforte, more than two dozen food security organizations asked the governor to work with the federal government to continue the federal boost to SNAP.
"We ask your administration and the Department of Public Health and Human Services to act quickly to reinstate these benefits before families and businesses across the state suffer financial hardship," reads the letter signed by Lorianne Burhop, the chief policy officer for the Montana Food Bank Network; and Heather O'Loughlin, a co-director of the Montana Budget and Policy Center. It was co-signed by groups around the state. "We believe that providing this support to families who need it most will not only increase the quality of life and reduce food insecurity for adults and children, but also speed our pandemic recovery."
The letter says the emergency allotments generated up to $12 million in economic activity each month. It also pointed out states like Utah, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Kansas and Minnesota worked with the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service to keep getting emergency allotments even though those states also ended their emergency declaration.
While the state's 15% boost lasts through September, O'Loughlin said it's still less than what the federal government was providing recipients.
"There is no question that the state is cutting the largest source of pandemic food assistance," O'Loughlin said.
An analysis from the Montana Budget and Policy Center found the 15% benefit increase will average about $27 for a recipient, for about $3 million in monthly benefits. The federal emergency allotments represented $8 million for recipients the last month and the minimum a household got under the federal emergency assistance was $95.
Gianforte's office did not answer a question about if it had tried to work with USDA to continue the state's extra SNAP dollars.
Ebelt pointed to other food assistance programs, like the Emergency Food Assistance Program, the Commodity Supplemental Food Program and the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations, as well as the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, which "can help families with rent, thus freeing up more money for food."
The end of the state of emergency would have also signaled the end of more extra money the federal government paid the state for its Medicaid program — except that the state health department issued an emergency rule continuing several of the provisions allowed under the emergency, including the Medicaid boost.
The emergency rule was was certified to the Secretary of State on July 2, but was not posted on the administrative rules website until Monday. The Secretary of State's Office did not respond to an email asking about why the rule was not posted until more than a week after it was certified, though the rule was on the health department's website.
Ebelt said in an email last week the rule "allows for the continued use of federal flexibilities involving telehealth services, Medicaid eligibility and recertification requirements in congregate care settings."
The emergency rule stops the implementation of any Medicaid eligibility standards, methodologies and procedures that would be more restrictive than those that were in place before the start of the pandemic. During the pandemic the federal government increased the share it pays for Medicaid programs by 6.2%, and states that put into place more restrictive eligibility measures would no longer be eligible for that increased match.
But at the same time, the health department is seeking a federal waiver to its Medicaid program to end what is called 12-month continuous eligibility, an action that would trigger the loss of that additional federal money. Ending continuous eligibility was a goal of Republicans during the legislative session earlier this year.
Right now people qualified for Medicaid are eligible for a year. The change the state is requesting from the federal government would end that, but does not otherwise alter eligibility. But public notice of the waiver acknowledges the change will need to be delayed to keep getting the extra federal Medicaid pandemic money.
"DPHHS understands that it is required to maintain continuous Medicaid coverage during the public health emergency as a condition of receiving a temporary 6.2% federal medical assistance program increase ... , " the notice reads. "In the event that the national public health emergency is extended beyond the date of this amendment approval, DPHHS will maintain continuous enrollment through the end of the public health emergency."
However, DPHHS is seeking for the change to be effective retroactively, starting July 1. The state's budget passed by lawmakers earlier this year accounts for the change. The state gets an additional 1% match from the federal government if it ends continuous eligibility.
Generally the emergency rule also allows for telehealth provisions allowed for during the state of emergency, like not requiring face-to-face interactions for some types of counseling and substance use disorder treatments, chemical dependency, and other places where Medicaid required in-person meetings for things like hospice.
“The demand for health care practitioners and facilities needed to respond to the pandemic has put significant strain on a health care system where a majority of Montana counties already faced shortages of health care and mental health practitioners. Telehealth flexibilities have allowed providers and facilities to make sure that healthcare needs do not go unmet during a period of increased demand,” the rule reads.
The emergency rule also extends an easing of staffing-related licenses and certifications in several types of care facilities.
“An effective response to the ongoing, albeit diminished, COVID-19 pandemic requires that the department and its community partners be able to continue utilizing the full array of tools made available by Congress and HHS,” the rule states.