Judge Holds NM Human Services Chief in Contempt

human-services-departmentOriginally published in the Albuquerque Journal September 28, 2016
https://www.abqjournal.com/854783/judge-finds-contempt-in-hsd-legal-case.html

SANTA FE – A federal judge held New Mexico’s top human services official in contempt Tuesday for failing to comply with court orders aimed at improving the administration of food aid and Medicaid health care benefits.

The contempt order against Human Services Secretary Brent Earnest by U.S. District Court Judge Kenneth Gonzales upheld findings that the cabinet secretary did not diligently attempt to comply with court orders concerning the handling of Medicaid benefit renewals, eligibility for immigrants, training for agency employees and other administrative requirements.

The judge, in his Tuesday order, also said objections filed by the agency were without merit and that the overall direction of the case was troubling.

“It remains clear that HSD and its officials have failed to exercise the leadership, control and managerial oversight to effectively come into compliance with the court orders,” Gonzales wrote.

However, a spokesman for the Human Services Department, which runs the federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, took issue with at least part of the judge’s order.

“We strongly disagree with the judge’s characterization of the department, which doesn’t take into account all of our efforts to resolve long-standing issues – some of which are three decades old and occurred under several administrations,” HSD spokesman Kyler Nerison said. “However, we are pleased that the court has agreed with us to bring in an outside monitor to help resolve those issues.”

“Regardless, we are going to continue providing services to New Mexicans who need it the most,” he added.

The contempt finding accompanies the judge’s earlier approval of plans for a court-appointed special master to help ensure federally funded benefits are administered properly amid internal investigations by state and federal agencies into allegations that food aid applications were falsified.

The civil contempt order carries no additional sanctions or penalties.

Sovereign Hager, an attorney at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty and advocate for aid beneficiaries in the litigation, said the order sends a strong message nonetheless.

“I think this is a message that if things don’t work out with a special master and the state doesn’t come into compliance, the court will look to harsher remedies,” she said.

New Mexico has one of the nation’s highest poverty rates, and there were more than 536,000 New Mexicans receiving food assistance benefits under SNAP, which was formerly known as food stamps, as of July, according to HSD. That figure was up by more than 7 percent – or nearly 36,000 people – from a year earlier.

The judge’s contempt order is the latest twist in a 1988 lawsuit. Earlier this year, a series of hearings were conducted by U.S. Magistrate Judge Carmen Garza, who had been tasked with monitoring compliance with a consent decree in the lawsuit and previous court orders.

Those hearings showed potential problems with the SNAP program, including testimony that state intake workers had been ordered to falsify income for some applicants, effectively denying them emergency benefits.

The testimony prompted criticism of Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration by top legislative Democrats and party officials, including a call from Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, the chairman of the interim Health and Human Services Committee, for Earnest to resign.

Earnest took over as HSD secretary – after Martinez picked him for the job – in December 2014 after the agency’s former secretary stepped down.

Read the Order from Judge Gonzales here.

Op-Ed: Underfunding Medicaid is a Foolish Decision

shutterstock baby with doctor for website -2015-12-17by Abuko Estrada & Sireesha Manne

Originally published in the Albuquerque Journal, September 26, 2016. https://www.abqjournal.com/852766/underfunding-medicaid-is-a-foolish-decision.html

As taxpayers, we expect that when government spends our money it will be leveraged toward the best investments that provide the most benefits to our state.

Currently, New Mexico receives four dollars in federal funds for every state dollar invested in Medicaid. This money goes directly into patient care and supports over 50,000 mostly private-sector jobs in the state.

Rather than maximizing this $4 to $1 return on investment, New Mexico underfunded the Medicaid budget in the 2016 legislative session.

For fiscal year 2017, New Mexico is losing over $265 million in federal matching funds for Medicaid by failing to come up with $67 million to meet Medicaid’s minimum budget needs. Our health care system is taking a massive financial loss of over $330 million this year — or nearly $1 million a day!

This is a budgeting disaster for New Mexico that is expected to result in thousands of jobs being lost and, worse yet, a reduction in care to patients. Health care had been one of the only growing job sectors in the state because of the expansion of Medicaid that has added over 4,800 jobs in 2014 alone. However, due to budget shortfalls, the state has decided to reduce Medicaid payment levels for hospitals, doctors and other medical practitioners.

In response, health care providers have issued serious warnings that the low Medicaid rates will force them to downsize staff and potentially even close entire facilities.

The decision to cut Medicaid is self-defeating because New Mexico desperately needs jobs and a stronger health care system.

Nearly every county in the state – 32 out of 33 counties – has shortages for primary care, dental care and mental health care. The problems are most severe for patients in rural areas, where over 30 percent of residents live.

A prime example of health care workforce shortages is the closing of the obstetrics department at Alta Vista Regional Hospital in Las Vegas, N.M. Since 2010, three other hospitals have ceased their obstetric services, forcing expectant mothers to travel unreasonable distances for prenatal care.

Medicaid patients face the most serious consequences of these shortages. The Legislative Finance Committee recently found that up to half of providers in some areas in New Mexico are refusing to take new Medicaid patients.

Another report has found that a quarter of Dona Aña County residents needing hospitalization are going to Texas to get services. However, as illustrated in a recent news article, many doctors in Texas now refuse to see these patients because our state’s Medicaid reimbursement rates are too low.

This is just the beginning.

Medicaid provides health care coverage to two out of three children in New Mexico, as well as seniors, people with disabilities and low-income families. However, due to Medicaid budget shortfalls, the state next plans to cut health care benefits and charge higher patient fees.

Studies have shown that these changes are likely to result in massive losses of coverage for low-income families and will prevent patients from accessing needed services, only deepening New Mexico’s health care crisis.

New Mexico needs to responsibly maximize Medicaid matching funds. The first step is to fix the state’s revenue system. New Mexico is losing needed dollars to tax cuts and loopholes created in the last 15 years for large corporations and the highest-income earners, which have not proven to produce jobs or benefit the state.

There are several ways to raise revenues without hurting working families, such as freezing corporate tax rates at their current levels, which are now on par with other states and further reductions are not needed, taxing capital gains and investment income at the same rate as earned income and targeting products that are undertaxed and that are not necessities, such as new vehicles, alcohol and tobacco.

By not acting, New Mexico is losing precious resources that our state needs to spur job growth and support our health care infrastructure. Let’s put our money into our wisest investments – Medicaid is certainly one of the best.

Editorial: Shortchanging the Poor

Republished from the Las Vegas Optic. See the original column here.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016 at 6:30 pm (Updated: July 19, 6:42 pm)

U.S. Magistrate Judge Carmen Garza has concluded that the New Mexico Human Services Department should have someone looking over its shoulder to help ensure that it complies with court orders and federal law in the administration of federally funded benefits.

According to The Associated Press, Garza is also recommending a contempt finding against the agency, which oversees the distribution of federal food aid and Medicaid health care benefits to the poor.

To be sure, those are merely proposals at this point; the department has 14 days to file its objections, and the department is already saying that it doesn’t agree with everything in the judge’s decision.

Still, it’s unfortunate — though not surprising — that such extreme measures are necessary to get the department to follow the law and to finally comply with court orders that have gone unfulfilled.

The harsh measures being recommended are not surprising because of the striking testimony presented during the court proceedings in the case.

“Caseworkers’ sworn testimony that they were instructed by managers to fraudulently alter applicant information has essentially not been refuted,” Garza said. According to The Associated Press, Garza also noted that managers overseeing supplemental nutrition benefits invoked their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination during the proceedings.

The Human Services Department’s office of inspector general and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are investigating that part of the case.

We don’t doubt that the state Human Services Department has a difficult job with tight deadlines and large caseloads.

But it’s also important to remember that the agency exists to serve as a safety net for our state’s most vulnerable residents.

The aid this agency provides helps our state’s poor put food on the table for their families and get medical care for them. Playing games with that aid is unconscionable and wrong.

If it takes a special master looking over the agency’s shoulder to force it to do the right thing, then so be it.

According to The Associated Press, the special master would have expertise in determining eligibility for Medicaid and food aid. That individual would also be knowledgeable with the organizational and computer systems used to manage the state’s caseload.

The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, which brought forth the federal lawsuit on behalf of aid beneficiaries, was pleased with Garza’s decision, which was issued Monday.

“The things we have been asking for are very simple,” attorney Sovereign Hager told AP. “Train your workers on what the law requires, make sure the IT system does what it’s supposed to, make sure notices are intelligible and make sense.”

That seems reasonable to us.

NM Human Services Department Found in Contempt, Federal Magistrate Recommends Special Master

SNAP Logo

Las Cruces, NM – On Friday, July 15, 2016, Federal Magistrate Carmen Garza entered proposed findings that the NM Human Services Department (HSD) be held in contempt for failure to comply with multiple Court Orders and federal law concerning administration of food and medical assistance to eligible families. Judge Garza found that “it is apparent that HSD and its officials have not exhibited the leadership, oversight, or coordination necessary to implement the Court Orders.” Judge recommended the appointment of a Special Master with expertise in food and medical assistance be appointed to facilitate HSD’s compliance with federal law and Court Orders.

The Order comes after three days of evidentiary hearings about HSD’s failure to provide food and medical assistance to families as required by federal law. Judge Garza noted numerous violations of federal law and Court Orders by HSD, finding that worker trainings and notices to families applying for food and medical assistance are “replete with repeated mistakes” and that HSD had not brought state regulations and policies into compliance with federal law. Nor could HSD tell the Court when compliance would be achieved. The Court further noted that testimony by HSD employees that HSD staff have been altering application in order to deny eligible applicants emergency food benefits and improve HSD’s timeliness statistics “was essentially not refuted.”
In entering a finding that the Secretary Brent Earnest should be held in Contempt, Judge Garza noted the Department’s recent willingness to seek expert assistance, stating “While the Court appreciates this acknowledgement, the Court is troubled it took over thirty hours of status conferences, over five hundred pages of joint status reports submitted to the Court, three days of evidentiary hearings on its Order to Show Cause, and testimony by HSD employees alleging fraud on the part of HSD, to which high level officials responded by pleading the fifth, for Defendant to discuss making these types of changes. For the question before the Court, Defendant’s realization has come entirely too late.”

As a remedy for contempt, Judge Garza recommends that the Court appoint and supervise a Special Master to act as a full time advisor and consultant to HSD. The Special Master will have expertise in food and medical assistance programs and will report to the Court on the extent of the Department’s compliance.

Judge Garza stated “Defendant’s inability to fully bring his application processing practices into compliance with the Court Orders has profound effects on the citizens of New Mexico. Indeed, when an eligible SNAP or Medicaid applicant is denied or delayed in receiving benefits, that individual loses benefits he or she may rely on to eat, feed his or her children, or to receive essential medical coverage . . . It is essential for this Court to acknowledge the need for these services to be effectively, efficiently and properly rendered to those who are eligible in this state.”

Attorneys at the Center and Law and Poverty, along with co-counsel Daniel Yohalem and Jane Yohalem, represent the class of plaintiff applicants for food and medical assistance in the case. Gail Evans, Legal Director at the NM Center on Law and Poverty stated, “We are pleased that the Court will appoint and supervise an expert to oversee HSD’s compliance with federal law in providing food and medical assistance. The Department needs expert assistance with important changes that will help the state provide benefits accurately and efficiently. This includes IT changes, the creation of a manual and effective training for state workers and comprehensible notices to families participating in the programs. We look forward to working with the special master to bring the Department into compliance with the law.”

For more information contact Gail Evans at (505) 255-2840/(505) 463-5299 or Sovereign Hager (505) 417-2084.

Read the full press release here.

Read Justice Garza’s recommendation here: Part 1 Part 2

NM Supreme Court Rules that Exclusion of Farm and Ranch Laborers from Workers’ Compensation is Unconstitutional

workers' rights option 1

Santa Fe, NM – Today, the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled that the New Mexico Constitution prohibits the exclusion of farm and ranch laborers from the protections of the New Mexico Workers’ Compensation Act (Act). In holding for the workers who challenged the Act, the Court said that the exclusion of farm and ranch laborers “is nothing more than arbitrary discrimination and, as such, it is forbidden by our Constitution.” Opinion at 2.

In its review of the history and purpose of the Act, the Court concluded that “there is no unique characteristic that distinguishes injured farm and ranch laborers from other employees of agricultural employers, and such a distinction is not essential to the Act’s purposes.” Opinion at 15.

New Mexico’s farm and ranch laborers are among the poorest of the working poor in our state, and consequently they cannot afford private health insurance. Their work is also very hazardous. Farm and ranch laborers work with heavy machinery, unpredictable animals and encounter harsh environmental conditions. In fact, the parties to the case agreed that farm laborers engage in dangerous work. “[A]s the parties observed at oral argument, farm and ranch laborers are engaged in a risky profession where workplace accidents frequently result from inherently unpredictable working conditions.” Opinion at 43.

Reacting to the decision the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty’s Legal Director Gail Evans remarked, “We are thrilled that New Mexico’s farm and ranch laborers have the same right to workers’ compensation as all other workers in our state.”

For more information contact: Gail Evans (505) 255-2840/(505) 463-5293 Elizabeth Wagoner (505) 255-2840 or Tim Davis (505) 255-2840

Download the full press release here.

Read the opinion from the NM Supreme Court here.

NM Political Report: Accusations of widespread fraud at HSD grow while officials plead the fifth

Republished with permission from the NM Political Report. Read the original article here.

By Joey Peters | May 13, 2016

LAS CRUCES — In a scene of high drama reminiscent of the TV drama “Law and Order,” three prominent state Human Services Department officials invoked their fifth amendment rights nearly 100 times in federal court Friday afternoon.

Legal Director Gail Evans and co-counsel Dan Yohalem outside the federal courthouse in Las Cruces.
Legal Director Gail Evans and co-counsel Dan Yohalem outside the federal courthouse in Las Cruces.

Their refusal to answer questions came directly after sworn testimony from six HSD employees who alleged a widespread practice of fraudulently altering federal food benefits applications.

The practice, according to eight former and current HSD employees who testified in federal court last month and today, amounts to adding false assets to the applications of people who would otherwise qualify for emergency aid from their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, otherwise known as food stamps.

“I still don’t understand why I had to falsify assets,” Shar Lynne Louis, a case processor at HSD’s Income Support Division (ISD) office in Gallup who retired last July, said in court.

Louis testified that the state had been practicing the pattern of fraud since at least 2003, when she first came to the department.

Federal law requires states to give food benefits for applicants who qualify for emergency, or expedited, benefits within seven days of applying. But HSD, according to many testimonies, has been long burdened with emergency applications that aren’t processed within the required seven days.

Instead of processing emergency applications late, department officials instructed employees to add fake assets so the application no longer meets expedited SNAP requirements.

“They make up the resources, whatever the case is, whatever the situation is,” Veronica Arciero, a case processor in the Silver City, said of the department’s handling of late emergency applications.

This practice of adding of what one attorney called “phantom assets” helps HSD to clear its backlog of overdue emergency applications, according to testimonies.

Arciero said the consequence of the practice amounted to putting applicants’ cases “on hold so they don’t they don’t receive the benefits they should have.”

“It’s lying,” she said. “It’s not something the customer is reporting.”

Mary Alice Duran, another employee who processed cases for 25 years in Santa Fe, Taos and Las Vegas and retired in 2013, also said the practice meant people qualified for emergency food aid didn’t receive their benefits later.

“It creates a hardship for the family,” Duran said.

One current employee who works in Silver City, Alexandra Hancock, even testified that she was reprimanded for processing a late application the correct way instead of adding fake assets to delay the benefits.

Specifically, Hancock testified that she fixed a late case where the applicant had reported $700 in income for the month and another employee wrongly wrote that income as $1,500. Because the applicant’s rent and utility expenses exceeded his monthly income, he qualified for expedited SNAP aid, according to Hancock.

But after she fixed and processed the case, Hancock told the court that Income Support Division Director Marilyn Martinez and former Deputy Director Laura Galindo instead told her she would be referred to HSD’s human resources department if it happened again.

“You had to answer for proving the benefits?” Sovereign Hager, an attorney for the Center on Law and Poverty, asked Hancock in court.

“It was said we had to do everything in our power to stop late expedites,” Hancock responded. “There was nothing I could have done other than entering fraudulent resources.”

She added: “We’re leaving kids and parents and the elderly without the food they need on their table.”

The Center on Law and Poverty is asking the federal court to appoint an independent monitor to oversee the state’s SNAP and Medicaid processing.

Martinez, Galindo and Taos County ISD Director Emily Floyd all invoked their Fifth Amendment rights when brought to the stand, refusing to answer a total of 97 questions Hager and attorney Daniel Yohalem* asked between the three of them.

The U.S. Constitution allows people to invoke Fifth Amendment rights to avoid implicating themselves in illegal activity. Invoking the Fifth Amendment itself cannot be used to implicate the person in illegal activity.

Questions that Martinez, Galindo and Floyd refused to answer ranged from whether they played ordered the fraud, retaliated against workers and lied to federal court in previous court hearings and motions.

The officials did not respond to any questions, including those to provide background on the working of HSD.

Last month, ISD Deputy Director Shanita Harrison in her own testimony accused three employees who testified with fraud allegations of instead making mistakes on their case processing themselves.

Jeanette Roybal, who works for ISD in Las Cruces, told the court that she had experienced workplace retaliation since first testifying about SNAP fraud in federal court last month.

“They’ve been monitoring me more often,” Roybal said of her supervisors. “They’re constantly stopping by and they’ll stand and stare at me.”

Roybal also said her workplace emails concerning a case with false assets had been deleted since she gave her first testimony last month. She also testified that her managers have access to her workplace emails.

Paul Kennedy, an attorney who represented HSD in court Friday, asked Roybal whether her managers would have had to personally go through her workplace computer to access her and delete her emails.

“As far as what I’ve been told, no,” Roybal responded.

An HSD spokesman who attended the court hearing would not answer questions from NM Political Report about the allegations or why their officials invoked their Fifth Amendment rights immediately following the proceedings. Instead, Kyler Nerison instructed NM Political Report to send him questions via email, to which he did not respond.

Kennedy told NM Political Report he wasn’t “authorized” to comment on the proceedings.

During the hearing, attorney Christopher Collins, who also represents HSD, referred to department’s internal investigation of the allegations, launched last month shortly after the allegations became public. HSD Secretary Brent Earnest also sent employees a directive telling employees to process expedited SNAP cases per federal law.

“People [today] testified that they received that received that directive and are following that directive,” Collins said.

He also said HSD issued a request for proposal to bring an outside consultant to oversee the department’s training of ISD employees and compliance with federal law. Such a process, Collins said, “could be implemented within 12 months.” The request for proposal process alone, Collins said, would take six to nine months.

Collins argued for judge to give the department 90 days before allowing both parties to make their closing arguments. Federal Magistrate Judge Carmen Garza instead scheduled the next court hearing for early July.

“Whatever is going on here—and we don’t know and are certainly concerned by what we hear—we don’t have all the facts,” Collins said in court.

The SNAP processing fraud allegations are part of ongoing legal motions by the Center on Law and Poverty to enforce a 25-year-old consent decree that the organization says HSD is not following. The consent decree came in 1991 as the settlement of a class action lawsuit that accused HSD of not properly processing SNAP and Medicaid benefits.

After the hearing, Hager told NM Political Report that she found the Fifth Amendment pleadings “very troubling” that the HSD officials would “invoke a right to not incriminate themselves” by not answering questions about the department’s “basic operations.”

Yohalem told told NM Political Report that he has “never seen this happen” in his 42 years of practicing civil rights law.

“If the department didn’t know what was going on,” Yohalem said of the fraud allegation testimonies, “why would they take the fifth?”

State Auditor Tim Keller’s office has also launched a separate investigation into the fraud allegations.

*Daniel Yohalem is representing the Santa Fe Reporter newspaper in a public records lawsuit against Gov. Susana Martinez. That lawsuit originated in 2013, while Joey Peters worked as a reporter for the newspaper.

Santa Fe New Mexican Editorial: Untangling the bureaucracy

Republished from the Santa Fe New Mexican. Read the original article here.

Outrageous. Shocking. Criminal?

That’s our reaction to testimony from Human Services Department caseworkers who claim that their bosses inflated the resources of needy people applying for emergency food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Why the bureaucratic fudging of paperwork? More assets (as little as $400) would mean the applicant no longer qualified for expedited help. New Mexico already faces sanctions for not processing aid claims fast enough; too many delays, and the department would be shown — again — that it is not complying with court directives. Thus, the incentive to lie.

We have long known that navigating federal programs, whether for food or medical help, in New Mexico is overly complex and burdensome. What last week’s hearing in federal Magistrate Court revealed is that in some cases, there appears to have been willful obstruction. The troublesome testimony came during a motion hearing asking for the Human Services Department to be held in contempt of court for not complying with a 25-year-old consent decree. The 1991 order came out of a 1988 lawsuit — obviously, the troubles in the department predate even the last two governors.

The New Mexico Center for Law and Poverty claims that New Mexico is illegally denying and closing off food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, what used to be known as food stamps. Five workers in the Income Support Division from different parts of the state all agreed they had been told that if they couldn’t meet a seven-day deadline for emergency food assistance, they were to pass the file to a supervisor. At that point, the boss could modify the file so the applicant wasn’t eligible for emergency help. Using delays, the state could process the claim and not miss a deadline — that would help the department’s numbers on federal audits.

These workers — who fear retaliation over testimony and should be protected — deserve praise for speaking out. One 10-year employee from Taos even kept notes on an original application; a supervisor reportedly later added $400 in “phantom” assets, but the original file contains a different story, according to testimony. The problems aren’t alleged to occur just with SNAP, but also in processing Medicaid applications.

New Human Services Department Secretary Brent Earnest tried to argue in the daylong hearing that the complexity of federal regulations and an overwhelmed department are at the root of problems with processing applications; he’s likely right, and we believe he is trying to correct the situation. He inherited the mess. But the fact remains that New Mexico cannot run its federal assistance programs in compliance with the law. That’s been apparent for years.

What happens next is up to federal Magistrate Carmen Garza, who was assigned the case by U.S. District Judge Kenneth Gonzales a year ago. We agree with lawyers who want more oversight over the state’s benefits process. Medicaid and SNAP recipients do not deserve the runaround. They deserve to be treated with respect and to receive — in a timely fashion — the help they are due. That the state is an obstacle to assistance, rather than making aid possible, needs to change.

Appointment of an independent monitor is the right step now, especially over the troubled Income Support Decision. We understand Earnest’s concerns that such a monitor diverts money from directly helping the poor; that’s an important point. However, the dysfunctions in the department have to be untangled. That means direction from outside to streamline the process; the fallback, so far as federal law allows, must be to approve applications rather than seek to deny. That a department already failing to process basic applications wants to add more paperwork — through new, unnecessary work requirements — demonstrates the department does not have the best interests of the needy at heart. Independent oversight is needed.

The contempt hearing and any decision on oversight should not be the end of this matter, either. Both the attorney general or the U.S. attorney, after hearing this testimony, should investigate charges that workers are being encouraged to delay applications, even to the point of supervisors falsifying assets. That’s fraud, pure and simple, if allegations can be proved. State Auditor Tim Keller announced his own investigation Friday. Something is rotten in the Human Services Department — and that core disregard for the law and the human dignity of aid recipients won’t be repaired without vigorous, independent oversight.

Want to read another editorial about this issue?
Albuquerque Journal: HSD must clean up its act to avert a federal takeover