Nicole Girten

BUTTE (Daily Montanan) — More than a dozen communities in Montana likely won’t have offices that help connect low-income families to employment training and food assistance if the state of Montana seals the deal on a $15 million contract that outsources the work to a Virginia company, a Butte nonprofit and Democrats said at a press conference Tuesday.

Late last month, the Department of Public Health and Human Services announced it was in contract negotiations with Maximus of Virginia, and state officials said the deal would consolidate services and be a responsible use of taxpayer money.

Currently, around a dozen organizations provide these services in more rural communities in Montana, but with the consolidation of the contract to one company, current providers are unsure of their organization’s future and whether their clients will still be connected to programs to get on their feet.

At the press conference at Career Futures, Senate Minority Leader Pat Flowers, D-Belgrade, listed the communities that would expect to have closures, which included Libby, Kalispell, Cut Bank, Havre, Wolf Point, Glasgow, Lame Deer, Glendive, Thompson Falls, Hamilton, Lewistown, Livingston and Hardin.

But staff at Career Futures in Butte said they are less concerned about the indefinite future of their jobs as they are for the uncertain future for their clients.

Career Futures fiscal manager Heather Carlson said the nonprofit has been “stretching every dollar” to meet their clients needs — from going to Walmart to get clothes for an interview, to helping people navigate language barriers to fill out applications for Medicaid — but the organization has started to turn people away as funds start to run dry.

“It’s so disheartening,” Carlson said.

The state argues this new model is in an effort to better use taxpayer dollars to serve a vulnerable population, but left-out contractors say some Montanans will lose access to services without in-person assistance.

The Department of Public Health and Human Services announced in late January it was in contract negotiations with Maximus to help applicants and participants in the state’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) cash assistance program.

“DPHHS is excited to partner with Maximus to re-invigorate programs that will put more Montanans back to work and drive their self-sufficiency,” Director Charlie Brereton said in a statement.

The department chose to consolidate existing contracts to a “single performance-based model” where a percentage of the payment to the contractor would be dependent on whether clients achieve certain outcomes — like earning a General Education Development (GED) certificate or getting a job, the department outlined in a press release.

“Through a new and innovative pay-for-performance model, our ultimate goal is to help our clients find secure and sustainable employment and increase their independence. We will accomplish this through a combination of in-person and virtual services with our clients’ needs top of mind,” Brereton said.

DPHHS said it made the decision last year to issue a new request for proposals in part because existing contracts were expiring this summer. Maximus is slated to take over July 1. But Carlson doesn’t think there’s enough time for Maximus to get the necessary structure in place for them to be ready by then.

The request for proposals obtained by the Daily Montanan says the contractor (Maximus) would be required to have a physical presence in urban areas in the state — Bozeman, Helena, Great Falls, Missoula and Billings — but would not be required to have offices in rural areas, which would include Butte.

The request says contractors would be encouraged to partner with local organizations (like Career Futures) and would have a $2 million budget requirement to do so, but Executive Director of Career Futures Sarah De Money said that wouldn’t be enough since their organization alone typically receives $1 million annually between SNAP and TANF funding.

The department in its request for proposals said the contractor would need to service these areas, but could do so without a physical presence there, like an office.

DPHHS said Tuesday Maximus’ office locations are being negotiated as details of the contract are being finalized, with discussions including permanent and part-time physical office locations, as well as virtual office locations, “which will meet clients where they are in a service-minded and innovative way.”

The request for proposals requires the new contractor, as needed, to partner with Montana-based organizations and sub-contract with existing service providers to maintain continuity of services and support local communities.

Career Futures’ staff said that in-person relationship building is essential, with lots of people finding out about their services by walking in. De Money said staff will drive to clients who are out in surrounding smaller towns, and other organizations in eastern Montana will drive and spend the night.

Board member and former client Dakota Stormo said it’s hard enough to ask for help in the first place.

“You have to swallow your pride. You’d have to, you know, take the hits as they come, and doing that through a phone call or through a piece of glass, just is inhuman,” Stormo said.

Rep. Derek Harvey, D-Butte, said there’s a technology gap as well, as people may not have a computer to access remote services.

“If it came down to me choosing between feeding my kids and paying for a cell phone or paying for internet, I’m gonna feed my kids,” Harvey said. “If we don’t have an office like we’re sitting in today, there’s nothing for anybody to walk to, they’re going to have to wait in line at the library to sit on a computer to maybe send out an email.”

Idaho contracted Maximus to operate employment services in 2016. States Newsroom reported in August Maximus call-center employees protested for better working conditions after hundreds of workers across several states were laid off.

At the event in Butte, Rep. Mary Caferro, D-Helena, spoke about how services like TANF helped her and her children out of poverty after escaping domestic abuse from her ex-husband. She said she was working two jobs as a single mother of two, missing soccer games and holidays, and lacked basic skills to advance her career– being nervous to write notes to her children’s teachers.

“I was discouraged from doing exactly what I needed to do until I met someone who said, ‘You can do it,’ and believed in me, and that is really what it took,” she said.

She went to college and got a job that paid well and had benefits, and now all her children are college educated.

“When we put Montana’s future in the hands of Montanans, this stuff works,” she said. “With people like me, we need someone across the table talking to us face to face.”

She said Montana has a long history of great performance administering TANF and SNAP since the 1990s. De Money said her organization has had no indication from DPHHS as to what has been failing to lead to the change, to which Caferro said, “That’s because things aren’t failing.”

Caferro said the Gianforte administration and DPHHS don’t understand how to assist this population of Montanans or how these programs work to connect people to services.

“These folks are ignorant,” she said. “They have never sat across the desk and looked in the eyes with somebody that’s struggling.”

Kaitlin Price, a spokesperson for Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte’s Office, told the Daily Montanan on Tuesday the governor is “committed to being a good steward of taxpayer resources to ensure these programs are results-driven, help the vulnerable, and bring Montanans to greater self-sufficiency.”