Their Day in Court: Obtaining Justice for New Mexico’s Poorest Workers

Republished with permission by the Impact Fund. To see the original article, follow: http://impactfund.org/their-day-in-court-obtaining-justice-for-new-mexicos-poorest-workers/

Gail By Gail Evans, Legal Director of the New Mexico Center on Law & Poverty

Robert was attacked by a bull while working at the dairy where he had been employed for seven years. His injuries left him permanently disabled. He had no health insurance and no workers’ compensation. In almost constant pain, he could not work. Although his wife began working three jobs, they still lost their home. Two years later, the strain broke up their family. Robert became homeless and estranged from his children.

Robert’s story (and we’ve changed his name to preserve his privacy) is a typical one for many of New Mexico’s agricultural laborers – some of the hardest working and poorest workers in the country – working 10 to 14 hours a day, six or seven days a week, at dangerous jobs for very low pay. New Mexico’s field laborers earn a meager average of only $8,978 a year—much less than the national average of $17,500 to $19,999. In addition, roughly one-fifth of all agricultural workers are injured, become sick, or die from work-related accidents, pesticide exposure, dehydration, or other incidents at work.

Until recently, New Mexico’s impoverished farm, ranch and dairy workers were left without any resources to help them recover from illnesses or injuries sustained while working. This is because agriculture was the only industry excluded from the protections of the New Mexico Workers’ Compensation Act.

This exclusion caused overwhelming misery and suffering. Without the basic protections of the workers’ compensation system, injured agricultural workers, like Robert, and their families frequently sank even deeper into hunger and poverty.
Inspired by stories like Robert’s, the NM Center on Law and Poverty set out to end the statutory exclusion of agricultural laborers from the New Mexico Workers’ Compensation Act. With the support of the Impact Fund and other private foundations, the Center filed an equal protection lawsuit in New Mexico District Court in 2009. After two years of litigation, we won a ruling that excluding agricultural laborers from mandatory workers’ compensation coverage, when other employees have the right to coverage, is a violation of the equal protection clause of the New Mexico Constitution.

Even after we won our lawsuit, the New Mexico Workers’ Compensation Administration continued to rely on the unconstitutional exclusion to dismiss the workers’ compensation claims of injured farm and dairy workers. We appealed those cases, and in June of 2015, the NM Court of Appeals issued a unanimous decision that the exclusion of farm and ranch laborers from workers’ compensation is not “rationally related to a legitimate state interest,” and is, therefore, unconstitutional.

The New Mexico Supreme Court recently accepted the case, and we are preparing for our day in court.

In 2009, the Impact Fund made a grant of $12,500 to New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty so that the case, Griego v. New Mexico Workers’ Compensation Administration could move forward.

The Impact Fund awards grants to nonprofit legal organizations, private attorneys, and small law firms who seek to advance justice in the areas of civil and human rights, environmental justice, and poverty law by funding public interest litigation that will potentially benefit a large number of people, lead to significant law reform, or raise public consciousness. For more information visit: www.impactfund.org.

Medicaid a Bright Spot in a Dismal Economy

Republished with permission by the New Mexico Political Report. To see the original article, follow: http://nmpoliticalreport.com/20757/medicaid-a-bright-spot-in-a-dismal-economy/

Abuko-2015-09-23By Abuko Estrada, Healthcare Staff Attorney at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty.

Since 2008, it has been gloomy in New Mexico. Our state is still recovering from the Great Recession. Our job growth has been among the worst in the nation, leaving us well short of pre-recession job levels. We are the only state in the nation where more people are moving out than moving in.

Our economic forecast still looks dismal.

There has, however, been one ray of sunshine–our healthcare sector is growing and over two hundred thousand New Mexicans have financial relief due to Medicaid expansion.

Now that we finally see a bright spot, let’s not ruin a good thing.

When New Mexico expanded Medicaid in 2014, our state had many reasons to celebrate. Polls showed overwhelming public support for Medicaid, with most voters in favor of Medicaid expansion and opposed to making cuts to the program.

The skyrocketing uninsured rate was taking its toll, leaving people without treatment or forcing families into medical debt and even bankruptcy. Medicaid expansion has meant that over 220,000 more New Mexican adults have health care coverage. This expansion of adult coverage also helped capture more uninsured children, reducing that rate by almost 16 percent during the first year alone.

New Mexicans knew that Medicaid expansion would boost job growth. In fact, the health care industry is driving job growth for our state. According to the Legislative Council Service, health care jobs have accounted for 56 percent of the new jobs over the last year.

We knew that Medicaid expansion would reduce costs for hospitals and healthcare providers, allowing them to invest in new facilities and their workforce. New Mexico’s 28 hospitals have already seen a 30 percent drop in the uncompensated care of uninsured patients from 2014. Our federally-qualified health centers, which have generally operated under budget deficits due to uncompensated care, had net income of $1.8 million dollars in fiscal year 2014. According to the New Mexico Primary Care Association, the better financial picture will allow the health centers to raise provider pay and increase capacity around the state.

We knew that Medicaid expansion would lead to economic relief for our families. In the past, people were routinely sent to collections for medical bills they could not pay. Healthcare coverage through Medicaid gives families more disposable income and the ability to build assets rather than struggle with debt. Every taxpayer also paid for state and county funds for hospitals to treat uninsured patients.

Finally, we knew that Medicaid expansion would be good for state revenue by injecting over $1 billion non-state dollars into the economy each year, primarily into the private sector, and increasing insurance taxes. In fiscal year 2014, The Department of Finance and Administration says New Mexico collected $115 million in insurance taxes. Economists with the Legislative Finance Committee estimate that number will grow to $247 million dollars by 2020.

For the first three years of expansion, we got all of these benefits at no cost to the state. In 2017, we will only pay 5 cents on the dollar, while the federal government takes on 95 percent of costs. After 2020, we will pay no more than one dime for every dollar to maintain these benefits. The insurance tax on Medicaid managed care companies retrieves 4 of these cents – canceling out nearly all of the State’s costs in upcoming years.

Still, some policymakers question the value of expansion and would like to cut support for the program.

It would be wrong to reverse course now and dump one of New Mexico’s best investments. Our state could lose hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars in economic activity.

Every dollar lost would damage our health care industry and workforce, stunting the driving sector for our job growth. Halting this growth could prove disastrous for our rural areas, which already face provider shortages. It would become more difficult to attract providers and build capacity.

New Mexico can only move forward if we capitalize on what we have. When the weather is finally breaking, let’s not take it for granted. By making the right choice to fully fund and support Medicaid, we can invest in a brighter future.

Kim Posich named Con Alma Health Foundation’s 2015 “Hero of Health”

Mr. Posich speaks from the podium at Con Alma Health Foundation's event on November 12, 2015
Mr. Posich speaks from the podium at Con Alma Health Foundation’s event on November 12, 2015

On Thursday, November 12, the Con Alma Health Foundation, honored Executive Director Kim Posich as the 2015 “Hero of Health”. This annual award is given to a leading advocate for health equity in New Mexico. Mr. Posich was nominated by Pamelya P. Herndon, Executive Director of the Southwest Women’s Law Center. Both Con Alma and Southwest Women’s Law Center have been longtime partners of the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty’s work on healthcare issues that affect low-income New Mexicans.

Thank you to Ms. Herdon and the Con Alma Health Foundation for recognizing Kim and his tireless efforts to improve the health and well-being of New Mexican families!

Executive Director Kim Posich Receives NM State Bar Award

Photo courtesy of Katie Williams
Kim Posich with his State Bar of New Mexico Award

The State Bar of New Mexico honored NMCLP Executive Director Kim Posich with the 2015 Distinguished Bar Service – Nonlawyer Award at a moving ceremony on October 1. The award recognizes nonlawyers who have provided valuable service and contributions to the legal profession over a significant period of time. In a letter from Joe Conte, Executive Director of the State Bar of New Mexico, told Kim, “Your commitment, contributions, dedication and leaders with the Center on Law and Poverty, as well as your efforts to expand and increase equal access to justice for all New Mexicans, make you most deserving of this special award.”

NM Legal Aid celebrated Kim and the other State Bar of New Mexico Honorees by holding a viewing party at their office. NMCLP staffers and Kim’s friends and family who couldn’t make the trip to Colorado Springs to see him accept his award in person watched New Mexico Civil Legal Services community. Thank you to NM Legal Aid for this event!

Kim's family, friends and coworkers celebrate his achievement.
Kim’s family, friends and coworkers celebrate his achievement.

All Pueblo Council of Governors Honors NM Center on Law and Poverty

Kim Posich APCG Recognition3In a moving ceremony at its meeting this past Tuesday, September 29th, the All Pueblo Council of Governors thanked the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty for generating changes in policy and laws for economic and social justice and for having “given voice to the poorest in our society”.

Over the past decade, the Center on Law and Poverty has collaborated with Native Americans in a unique relationship on issues important to New Mexico’s tribes. These include: increasing access to health care for Native American’s at the University of New Mexico Hospital; protecting Native American’s rights to fee-for-service Medicaid; to spread best administrative practices for tribal healthcare systems; improving our state government’s consultation with tribes concerning matters that affect them; ensuring that safety net programs work well for low-income Native Americans; and many others.

The work of the Center with Native American leaders and advocates has yielded significant outcomes. The joint efforts at UNM Hospital alone, for example, with local community groups, resulted in several important outcomes. The Hospital developed comprehensive language services to better serve patients who are not proficient in English. It abandoned its practice of charging uninsured patients more than insured patients and of requiring that uninsured patients pay 50% of expected charges in advance of receiving care. It also curtailed aggressive collections policies that harmed low-income patients.

On behalf of the Council, Governor Val Panteah Sr. of Zuni Pueblo read an homage to the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty’s director, Kim Posich, for his dedication and leadership, and to his staff, for their advocacy and litigation in partnership with Native Americans and in Native American interests. He also called for exploring a formal relationship with the Center and Mr. Posich agreed to join the Governors in considering a more explicit partnership.

Kim Posich APCG Recognition1 Mr. Posich stated that strengthening the relationship between the Center on Law and Poverty and the Pueblos could lead to the formation of a Native American public interest law center, an idea that has been generating excitement in advocacy circles. Most visions of the new law center would have it be similar to the Center on Law and Poverty with the purpose of creating systemic change for low income Native American New Mexicans, perhaps even starting within the Center. However, it would be staffed largely by Native Americans and focus exclusively on issues that cut across Native American interests.

Press Release: NMCLP Honored by APCG-2015-10-01

Health Action New Mexico Honors Kim Posich at 20th Anniversary Celebration

On September 23rd, Health Action New Mexico celebrated its 20th Anniversary. Health Action NM has worked for 20 years to bring organizations, consumers and decision-makers together to impact health policy and to advance access to quality, affordable and accountable health and dental care for all. The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty has collaborated with Health Action New Mexico many times over the years. Our combined advocacy efforts have made a real difference in the health of New Mexican families.

At the event, NMCLP Executive Director Kim Posich was honored as part of their 20 for 20 presentation, where they acknowledged 20 individuals who have made major contributions to improving health care in New Mexico over the past 20 years. Thank you for this honor! Kim and all of the NMCLP are proud to be part of our state’s vibrant and effective advocacy community.

Congratulations on 20 Years, Health Action NM!

Photo courtesy of Health Action NM
NMCLP Executive Director Kim Posich greets colleagues at the Health Action NM 20th Anniversary event on September 23, 2015.

Fall, Spring, and Summer Externships

The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty allows selected law students the opportunity to earn credits while working under the supervision of a licensed attorney as part of an Externship Program. Students will have the opportunity to work in the areas of healthcare, workers’ rights, immigrants’ rights, public benefits, hunger and nutritional support, and public education. For questions regarding externships, please contact Staff Attorney Abuko Estrada at abuko@nmpovertylaw.org or Preston Sanchez at preston@nmpovertylaw.org.

Paid Summer Internship

The Seth Montgomery Fellowship is a paid ($5,000 stipend) 10 week internship that allows for one outstanding first or second year law student to work with one or several attorneys on issues related to healthcare, workers’ rights, immigrants’ rights, public benefits, hunger and nutritional support, and public education. The position requires the student to work full time (40 hours). Applications for the 2016 Seth Montgomery Fellowship will be accepted starting in the spring of 2016 Have any questions? Please email Staff Attorney Abuko Estrada at abuko@nmpovertylaw.org or Preston Sanchez at preston@nmpovertylaw.org.

Celebrate 50 Years of Medicare & Medicaid!

You’re invited to the 50th Anniversary Celebration of Medicare & Medicaid. These programs have improved the lives of New Mexicans for half a century and we want you to be there to look forward to 50 more years of success. The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty and the Health Care for All Coalition will be celebrating at Explora on July 30th from 4pm-6pm.
Admission is free starting at 1pm, so please feel free to come a few hours early to enjoy the museum with friends and family. Food, beverages, and entertainment will be provided.

Please RSVP with the following link: EventBrite

For more about the anniversary of Medicare & Medicaid, visit the website of the National Academy of Social Insurance, the Kaiser Family Foundation, or the Department of Health and Human Services.

Court of Appeals Strikes Down Exclusion of Farmworkers from Workers’ Compensation

A new day dawns for agricultural workers in New Mexico! The state Court of Appeals just issued a decision that excluding farm and ranch workers from the Workers’ Compensation Act violates the equal protection clause of the state constitution.

The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty has been fighting for this decision since filing our original lawsuit in District Court in 2009. Although we previously won a positive ruling from the District Court Judge, the case has been in appeal for years. Now, the New Mexico Workers’ Compensation Administration has stated that they intend to fully enforce the decision by requiring employers to provide coverage for farm and ranch laborers.

This is a huge victory for protecting the health, safety and economic security of New Mexico’s most hardworking and underpaid laborers.

Read the Press Release here: Press-release-Court-of-Appeals-strikes-down-exclusion-2015-06-25.
Read the Court’s Opinion here: Opinion-Court-of-Appeals-2015-06-22.