USDA Food and Nutrition Services (FNS) mandated that all states implement an electronic benefit transfer (EBT) system by October 2002 to distribute Food Stamp Program benefits electronically in an effort to reduce program stigma and do away with costly administration of paper food stamp coupons. Based on later legislation requiring states' EBT systems to be interoperable and cost neutral, Montana chose to develop an on line system that would facilitate debit-type magnetic stripe cards linked to participant accounts through a host computer that would update account information in real time. Participants access benefits at FNS authorized retailers across the state and nation simply by swiping their EBT card, also known as the MONTANA ACCESS card, through a point of sale (POS) device and entering their personal identification number (PIN) to authorize the transaction at the time of purchase. Retailers accept the Montana ACCESS card either through their third party processor by using commercial equipment, or by using state-sponsored equipment at no cost to the retailer or by manually completing a Food Stamp Offline Manual Voucher. Retailers that are not equipped are evaluated to determine if they qualify for state-sponsored equipment that is provided by DPHHS. Low volume or non-electronic retailers participate by using off line using manual vouchers. Retailers settle their Food Stamp sales nightly and are reimbursed electronically through and Automated Clearing House (ACH) transaction that is credited directly to their bank account within a couple of days. Stores display a logo that participants recognize as a store that accepts the Montana ACCESS card. MONTANA ACCESS was implemented statewide June 2002 for the Food Stamp Program. MONTANA ACCESS distributes approximately $7.5 million in Food Stamp Program benefits to approximately 35,000 Montana households monthly.
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) cash benefits were added to MONTANA ACCESS October 2002 as a payment option for participants. TANF participants may also choose to have their benefits sent to a direct deposit or receive a state issued warrant. Approximately 2,100 TANF participants receive $720,000 through MONTANA ACCESS. Approximately 250 TANF participants receive $70,000 in direct deposit payments.
Child Support payments were added to MONTANA ACCESS May 2003. Approximately 4,500 custodial parents receive Child Support payments to MONTANA ACCESS accounts totaling approximately $1.1 million every month.
Cash account cardholders use MONTANA ACCESS cards for purchases or access cash from automated teller machines (ATMs) and participating retailers and post offices in the state of Montana and across the nation.