Why some low income Montanans have seen their phone bills quadruple

The Lifeline phone discount is a service offered by telephone companies to help low income and fixed income Montanans afford telephones. People on Medicaid automatically were eligible for the program, but recent changes have expanded the number of people eligible. Director of Regulatory and Legislative Affairs for Montana Jeff Hubbard said with the changes now the phone company is verifying if customers qualify instead of the state.

“Before the state only had Medicaid, and now the federal has come along and said all these other programs qualify. The state did not go for a legislative change to their rules to adopt the FCC rules, so the state is Medicaid only, and the federal rules for additional credits are a lot of the additional programs,” Hubbard said.

The federal Lifeline program allows for a discount on phone service for people below 1-hundred-35-percent of the federal poverty level; which is just under 13-hundred-dollars a month for a single person.

The office of Public Assistance helps guide people through different state and federal aid programs. Megan Wilkie with the Lewis and Clark County office works with a little less than 500 clients in the Helena area and said many of them are living on fixed incomes of less than 9-hundred-dollars-per month. She said her office started getting calls in December of people whose phone bills had jumped from $6 to $36 each month.

“Which I think for someone with a regular income would not be a big amount, but the percentage of their  income, and the amount it had increased; people who are living on a very fixed income where every dollar matters were really rocked by that,” Wilkie said.

She said different clients have been asked to provide different things; Medicaid cards, and details of exactly how much aid individuals are receiving,

“I want to know what people are actually required to show because some of the things that I’ve heard that they’re asking for are, like I said, don’t exist, or seem invasive,” Wilkie said.

Online through the CenturyLink website the Montana Application for the Lifeline Discount has you check boxes for different federal programs including Medicaid, housing and food assistance. It asks applicants to attach a copy of the eligibility documentation for any of the participating programs. Hubbard said CenturyLink sent out a letter to participating customers last year to let them know they had to re-certify through the phone company to keep the discount in 2013.

In a Press Release from earlier this year the Montana Public Service Commission said 6,858 people of the 13,184 Montanans who had been receiving the Lifeline discounts lost it with the changes. The release stated the vast majority of customers who lost the discount had not responded to the phone companies when they sent out the notice about the changes. The release said of the 6,363 customers who did respond, only 37 were deemed no longer eligible.



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