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ANACONDA — AWARE Inc. announced Friday that it is cutting 80 positions, the majority affecting staff for services and group homes across the state.

The layoffs are in response to a series of recent regulatory changes within the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, combined with tighter budgeting handed down by the 2011 Legislature that could threaten up to $1 million in AWARE funding in the next year.

AWARE Inc. is a private, nonprofit organization that provides community-based services to people with mental, emotional and physical challenges who would otherwise be served in a more restrictive setting.

Larry Noonan, CEO of the Anaconda-based organization, said 48 of those jobs are part-time with respite care services in the Billings area. They also lost six jobs in the Butte and Anaconda area between maintenance, Early Head Start, respite and administration.

Total cuts represent about 7 percent of AWARE’s 1,200 employees — about 900 full-time and the rest part-time, according to an announcement.

Noonan said the nonprofit hopes to keep as many people as they can in comparable positions using its reduction-in-force policy.

“The main thing is to keep the same staff available who we’ve already trained,” Noonan said. “None of this has to do with performance. It’s just the economics of our time.”

In particular, DPHHS changed the way respite care is provided when the Developmental Disabilities Program contracted with the out-of-state Acumen Fiscal Agent in July 2009.

Acumen offers self-direct respite, as opposed to care through a provider agency. AWARE determined over the past 10 months that it could not effectively go against that model, Noonan said.

“The state felt this was a more cost-effective way to provide that service,” he said. “We tried to be as creative as we could, but we just couldn’t do it well enough.”

DPHHS also came up with new regulations to provide youth group homes, Noonan said. While AWARE favors four-bed units for kids with severe emotional disturbance, the state favors larger programs.

As a result, AWARE will consolidate two four-bed group homes into one six-bed home in both Kalispell and Billings, losing staff as well as decreasing the number of children served.

Meanwhile, the Legislature further reduced reimbursement for psychiatry. AWARE employs 14 psychiatrists.

“We have to figure out how to offer psychiatry cheaper,” Noonan said.

Noonan insisted the layoffs are not a death sentence to AWARE, and it will continue to work toward improvements to its services.

“The sky is not falling,” Noonan said. “We’re not happy about all the changes we have to make, but it’s a chance to make sure we’re using taxpayer money as efficiently as we possibly can.”

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