Santa Fe Reporter: A Broken Process0

New Mexico is still struggling to comply with a decades-old court order to ensure benefits for indigent people

Republished with permission from the Santa Fe Reporter.
Click here to read the original article.

By Steven Hsieh

Abby Knowlton drove to the offices of the Santa Fe Income Support Division on March 23, 2015, to apply for Medicaid and food stamps. She pulled a slip from a number dispenser and sat down to wait. Along with dozens of other applicants, she answered questions on a form: Did she have income? No. Kids? No. Had she ever traded food stamps for guns or ammunition? No.

After hours—enough time for Knowlton to drop by her mother’s house for a snack and bathroom break—a Human Services Department worker called her to the front window. After reviewing her paperwork, she was approved.

Applying for assistance wasn’t originally in her plan, though. Knowlton, 33, moved back home to New Mexico to pursue a doctorate in Spanish. She previously worked as an interpreter at a Colorado hospital.

Knowlton always had health problems, including migraines that started when she was a child. One day, during a routine checkup, her blood pressure reading was so high that a nurse thought the machine was broken. Confusion turned to alarm. After running tests, a doctor diagnosed Knowlton with malignant hypertension. Her heart, lungs, kidneys and brain were all losing function and getting worse. Knowlton’s professional career was over.

Days after she was approved for food stamps, Knowlton received a form from Human Services identifying her as a “mandatory work participant.” The printout instructed her to complete a jobs training program “within 15 days of receiving this notice.” It went on to say, “This form must be returned by: (Date),” without indicating a date. If Knowlton had any questions, the form stated, she should call her caseworker. Knowlton had many questions. Among them: Who was her caseworker?

She called multiple toll-free numbers but couldn’t get the answers she was looking for. On a friend’s recommendation, Knowlton contacted the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. Attorneys investigated her case and said it was another in a long line of instances where the state’s process for awarding benefits is failing low-income New Mexicans.

Knowlton’s medical condition should have exempted her from New Mexico’s job search requirements, as soon as she applied for benefits, says Sovereign Hager, an attorney at the center. “The law requires Human Services to explain all of this in the interview and screen her for exemptions,” Hager says. “Had they asked, Abby could have explained she is disabled.”

Knowlton’s abundant free time and education helps her navigate the tangles of state bureaucracy. She also keeps meticulous records in a bulging red folder. The same cannot be said for all 230,907 New Mexicans who applied for food stamps or Medicaid in 2015. For many, a procedural misstep by the state can result in a loss of food assistance or health coverage.

“Families shouldn’t need an attorney helping them, because it’s the department’s obligation under federal and state law to provide assistance to people in an accessible way,” Hager says.

Human Services’ own data shows that the department improperly closes cases 47 percent of the time.

In 1991, the department entered into a consent decree, agreeing to comply with laws regarding the processing of Medicaid and food stamps, officially called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). But advocates say the state has repeatedly violated its terms. In 2013, when the Human Services Department switched to a new computer system, thousands of New Mexicans were automatically dropped from their SNAP benefits; a judge ordered the end of this practice. And in January, the court struck down increased penalties for noncompliance with requirements for food stamps.

Most recently, lawyers recommended that the court appoint a third-party “expert” to oversee functions related to the consent decree. For more than two decades, state officials have failed to implement fixes to a process that illegally delays or drops benefits, a court filing claims. Calls to customer service representatives often go unanswered.

A spokesman for the department did not respond to a request for comment for this story before presstime. Later, Kyler Nerison issued this statement: “We disagree with [the Center on Law and Poverty]. The Department is in substantial compliance with the court’s consent decree. [The center] has not been cooperative or constructive with this process and they continuously attempt to redefine the standards for compliance.”

Eleven days after her first trip to the Income Support Division, Knowlton returned with her medical records and a note from her doctor exempting her from the work requirements. She was able to keep the food assistance.

That would not be the end of her frustrations, though. In January, she applied to renew her SNAP benefits. According to her lawyers, she is eligible for a 24-month recertification, but workers granted Knowlton just three additional months of benefits after failing to schedule an interview with her, which Hager says violates procedures. After Knowlton’s attorneys followed up, the state acknowledged its oversight and granted her a yearlong recertification.

“It’s just always a pending, unclear mess,” Knowlton says.

Knowlton periodically logs onto a website set up for New Mexicans to check the status of their benefits. On Friday, the row for food stamps read: “This section is unavailable to view.”

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