Court orders HSD to make phone line available in more languages and notify Medicaid recipients of language assistance services

ALBUQUERQUE—Late Friday, a federal court reaffirmed the New Mexico Human Services Department’s obligation to identify languages spoken by families trying to access food and medical assistance and to translate documents based on the demographics of those served by local agency offices. The court also ordered HSD to include information on the availability of language assistance services on Medicaid notices and to immediately fix its automated phone system to offer interpretation in multiple languages. Currently, individuals who don’t speak English or Spanish cannot access interpretation services using the phone line.

“The court made it clear that the Asian language speaking community does matter and, contrary to HSD’s hurtful assertion, has a significant presence in our state,” said Sachi Watase of the New Mexico Asian Family Center. “Everyone, including those who speak languages other than English, deserves to have access to the resources intended to support them. Unfortunately, too many New Mexicans’ health and safety are predefined by these inequitable barriers. Lack of translation is part of a systemic problem that ignores the existence of Asians in New Mexico. We hope HSD will change course and make an honest effort to improve access to all New Mexicans.”

The ruling comes as New Mexicans urge Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham to sign a bill mandating that state agencies plan for translation and interpretation services. For years advocates and community members have called for fair access to state services for New Mexicans who speak languages other than English. If House Bill 22: Limited English Access To State Programs is signed into law, it would require all state agencies with secretaries perform a language use analysis and develop an agency language access plan, similar to analysis required under federal food stamp regulations. 

“The court recognized that everyone, including those who speak languages other than English, should have access to food and medical assistance,” said Sovereign Hager, New Mexico Center on Law Poverty Legal Director. “The governor prioritized language access when she provided public information about Covid-19 vaccines and tests. HB 22 is an opportunity to institutionalize the same attention to equity across state agencies. New Mexicans ask her to sign this bill.”

Many New Mexicans speak languages other than English–including Vietnamese, Chinese, Dari, Arabic, Swahili, Kinyarwanda, and Diné/Navaho. Many of these languages meet population thresholds that require translation of food and medical assistance applications and documents under federal law. However, the state only provides written documents in English and Spanish and oral interpreters are nearly impossible to reach without additional help. 

The ruling was on a motion filed by applicants for food and medical assistance, represented by the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty in the Deborah Hatten Gonzales v. David Scrase lawsuit. 

New Mexican families who speak languages other than English have reported barriers accessing food and medical assistance, which has been especially difficult during the pandemic. Some lost food assistance multiple times because notices about renewing benefits are only in English. Others reported having to pay private interpreters, despite having no income and having to deal with unnecessary in-person contact during the public health emergency. 

Despite repeated attempts since 2009 to bring these issues to HSD’s attention, the agency refused to address them. 

Currently, community-based organizations that work directly with New Mexicans that speak languages other than English or Spanish, like the New Mexico Asian Family Center and the Refugee Well-being Project, have to divert limited resources and take on additional clients to provide translation and interpretation services that are the state’s responsibility under federal and state law. 

The long-running Hatten-Gonzales lawsuit was originally filed in 1989. In 2016, the court held former HSD Secretary Brent Earnest in contempt for failing to remove systemic barriers to assistance for eligible families applying for food and Medicaid assistance and appointed a Special Master to monitor and make recommendations to the department.

The court said a written order on Friday’s ruling will be forthcoming.

The January 2022 court order can be found here: https://cookieless-offload.s3.us-west-2.amazonaws.com/nmpovertylaw/Order-Language+Access-DHG-2022-01-21-compressed.pdf

The September 2021 order for HSD to implement a corrective action plan can be found here:  https://drive.google.com/file/d/1r-N6N8KCIk1sJDxxxywIY5Zz7dIeRf81/view?usp=sharing

Information on  HB 22 can be found here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1j6ZmNw7JHYZ3KoXzTwq-nU26SIQRUxeZ/view