Montanans who provide unpaid care for family members or friends will have more tools to do that work thanks to a new state law.

State lawmakers overwhelmingly approved House Bill 163, the Montana Caregiver Act, during this year’s legislative session. It went into effect Oct. 1.

“It acknowledges that we have a strong army of friends and family that help people when they’re in need,” said Claudia Clifford, advocacy director for AARP Montana.

The new law states all hospital patients must have the opportunity to select a family caregiver. If a patient with a designated caregiver is released, the hospital will be required to meet with that person. They’ll provide information about what kind of care the patient will need at home. In some cases, they’ll even offer training.

“Family caregivers were oftentimes at a loss of what should happen once they got their loved one home,” Clifford said.

Democratic Sen. Mary Caferro of Helena carried the bill. She was an unpaid caregiver for her father and said the legislation reminded her of the struggles she faced during that time.

“What my dad needed, what I needed, was a sit-down, a conversation about what was going to happen,” she said.

Caferro said she was pleased with the wide support for the Montana Caregiver Act. It passed unanimously in the state Senate and 97-3 in the House.

“Legislators really got it,” Caferro said. “They got why this was important.”

Supporters of the new law say it could do more than just make life easier for caregivers – it could also save money, both for patients and for health care providers.

“The goal is to try and make that transition to home work well, so that you don’t end up going back into the hospital or need to go into a nursing home or a more expensive facility,” said Clifford.

Clifford said more than 118,000 Montanans are currently unpaid caregivers. One estimate says the value of their work is more than $1 billion a year.

AARP says Montana is one of at least 36 states that have this type of caregiver law on the books.