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Report: Feds say Montana is taking too long to review SNAP applications

Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services building
Montana Public Radio
Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services building

Montana's health department has been plagued by delays in accepting applications for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP — and that's drawn criticism from the federal government. Montana Free Press first reported the U.S. Department of Agriculture placed the state health department under a "corrective plan" to speed up that process.

Austin Amestoy: Reporter Mara Silvers joins me to share her reporting. Mara, we've heard anecdotes and seen some evidence that the state was struggling to process applications for SNAP for some time now, but a records request Montana Free Press conducted helped bring that issue into focus. So what did you find?

Mara Silvers: Yeah, so, back in November, the federal USDA sent a letter to Montana state health department telling them to create this "corrective action plan." So, the basic concern of the food and nutrition service within the USDA was that, according to data from the first half of 2023, Montana's rate of timely application processing was about ten percentage points below what the federal officials require. So, the threshold that they ask for is a rate of 95% of timely application processing, and Montana was coming in at about 84%.

Austin Amestoy: You know, this isn't the first time I can remember, Mara, federal regulators flagging the state Department of Public Health and Human Services for procedural issues. Last year, they also sent warnings about the state's long wait times and rates of dropped calls for phone support for Medicaid renewals. But I will say, this is certainly the firmest language I've heard regulators use against the department. How is the state addressing the concerns raised over SNAP?

Mara Silvers: Well, you've actually pointed out what the state says is its biggest problem, which is Medicaid redetermination. The department said that it began reviewing the eligibility of about 330,000 Medicaid enrollees last April, and basically got so swamped with that process that they had to focus on training employees to handle Medicaid applications first. So, that made it harder to find staff to review food assistance applications. And, in its corrective action plan, the state said it started to train more staff to deal with SNAP in December, and has also made changes to how SNAP applicants get funneled through the state's public assistance helpline, so they're not being crowded out by people calling about Medicaid cases. But overall, you can just see how the Medicaid redetermination process has really put a strain on the state health department's workforce.

Austin Amestoy: Well, we know that the state's redetermination process ostensibly ended, you know, January–February. The letter you guys received in that records request is from November of last year, the corrective plan for Snap from December. So, are there any indications at this point, Mara, that the state health department has improved its SNAP application process?

Mara Silvers: Not that I've seen. And, the state health department declined any additional comment about the corrective action plan when I asked. We should also point out that the feds did ding Montana in February of this year — just last month — for other ways in which the department was out of compliance with required standards, like giving too much or too little in food assistance to families, or having too many errors when they deny or suspend food assistance. The communication that we saw from last month said the state is showing signs of improvement in those categories. But, we will have to keep our eye out in the months ahead to see how they're improving application processing times.

Austin Amestoy: Well, we'll look to your reporting, Mara. Thank you so much for sharing it with us today.

Mara Silvers: Thank you.

Austin graduated from the University of Montana’s journalism program in May 2022. He came to MTPR as an evening newscast intern that summer, and jumped at the chance to join full-time as the station’s morning voice in Fall 2022.

He is best reached by emailing
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