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

Op-ed: Court was right to halt bungled SNAP rules

By Gail Evans, Legal Director NM Center on Law and Poverty

Published in the Albuquerque Journal, Monday, March 28th, 2016. See the original article at http://www.abqjournal.com/747133/opinion/court-was-right-to-halt-bungled-snap-rules.html

Earlier this month, a federal court halted the latest effort by Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration to revise the state’s SNAP food assistance program because the revisions were illegally denying food assistance to people in need.

A recent editorial by the Albuquerque Journal blasted the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty for bringing a lawsuit to prevent this effort. However, a very basic review of the facts reveals the suit halted a bureaucratic nightmare that left people in our state without either food aid or job opportunities.

The governor has wanted to revise state SNAP policy to penalize people receiving food assistance who do not meet certain work requirements. However, each attempt to impose these requirements has been a disaster.

When the Human Services Department first tried to do so, in 2014, a state court found that the agency’s rules were so incoherent that they could not be deciphered. The department tried again this year, but a federal court found they were not implementing the penalties fairly or in accordance with the law.

In the hearing, Judge Kenneth Gonzalez heard testimony from the department’s own employees that they had no way to track who had been meeting work requirements and who had not. They admitted that the department’s notice procedures were inadequate and that caseworkers were not trained. They admitted that chronically ill and homeless individuals had been wrongly classified as ineligible for exemptions. They heard testimony from people who were wrongfully denied food assistance and learned of some 12,000 New Mexicans directly affected by this bungling.

The evidence was so clear and overwhelming, the judge ruled that the department must cease applying penalties until it demonstrates it can apply them within the law.

One of the roles of the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty is to ensure that laws like this, which impact low-income New Mexicans, are well designed and implemented. When they are not, we seek to get the problem repaired.

Our staff spent many hundreds of hours over the past two years trying to get the state to do this one right. But the state Human Services Department, with major deficits in funding and administrative expertise, has so far failed, causing harm to people in trying. Judge Gonzales was absolutely right to stop them.

All of the witnesses in this case want to work and need help finding work. Low-income New Mexicans are not lazy or cheats. The problem is that they are living in a broken state education system and a flailing economy, among the worst in the nation on both counts.

The very least our state government can do during times of crisis is effectively and efficiently administer the public safety net that is required by law.

Instead, the Human Services Department is left to serve record numbers of people in need while struggling with inadequate funding and a shallow bench of capable administrators. They are barely able to administer the expanded Medicaid program, which has been the best source of jobs and out-of-state investment we’ve had in the past five years.

It makes no sense for the governor to add to the department’s workload with new SNAP regulations unless they can be implemented properly.

Federal law doesn’t require these regulations in places of high unemployment like New Mexico. But it does require of the very few states choosing to impose them that they be imposed legally and fairly.

People should be notified when they are subject to new regulations. People who are meeting the requirements and those who cannot work, such as people with disabilities or chronic illnesses, should not lose food assistance.

The Journal’s editorial attack on the Center on Law and Poverty and the courts is baseless and misses an important opportunity to help hold our government accountable for policies and practices that are improperly impacting thousands of people.

Santa Fe New Mexican: Judge issues injunction to prevent state from denying food aid

Read the original article on the Santa Fe New Mexican’s website.

By Justin Horwath, The New Mexican

Thousands of New Mexicans will not have to prove to the state that they’re working in order to receive food benefits after a federal judge ruled that the state has been wrongly denying assistance to people through stricter rules that went into effect this year.

Karume Henry, left, from Santa Fe, and Christina E. Nelson, right, from Santa Fe, speak with Linda Montero, a family assistance analyst at the Human Services Department, while they apply for food stamps on Wednesday, March 8, 2016. Luis Sánchez Saturno/The New Mexican
Karume Henry, left, from Santa Fe, and Christina E. Nelson, right, from Santa Fe, speak with Linda Montero, a family assistance analyst at the Human Services Department, while they apply for food stamps on Wednesday, March 8, 2016. Luis Sánchez Saturno/The New Mexican
The injunction against the state, issued late Monday by U.S. District Judge Kenneth Gonzales of Las Cruces, means that between approximately 11,000 and 17,500 New Mexicans will not have to prove they’re working or looking for work in exchange for help getting food.

Kyler Nerison, a spokesman for the state Human Services Department, did not answer a question Tuesday about whether the department will appeal the ruling regarding the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

“The Human Services Department provides SNAP benefits to more than 500,000 New Mexicans and we disagree with this ruling, which prevents us from engaging 11,000 of those recipients in employment search, job training and community service opportunities that would have helped them transition off of public assistance,” Nerison said in an email. “These are the same broad-based bipartisan work or job search requirements that were signed into law by President Bill Clinton and have existed for years in New Mexico public assistance programs.”

During the recession, Congress granted states waivers from requiring able-bodied adults to prove they were working or risk losing food benefits after three months. That waiver expired and Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration implemented new work requirements through a rule-making process last year that followed contentious public hearings.

Martinez’s Human Services Department said it was putting the changes in place because the federal government required it to do so after the state’s waiver expired. But opponents of the changes said the administration implemented harsher rules than the federal government required.

The changes would have required childless adults without disabilities between the ages of 18 and 49 to prove to the state they’re spending 80 hours a month in an approved work activity in order to receive food benefits for more than three months. That segment will not be subject to the rule as long as the judge’s injunction is in place.

The case has its roots in a decades-long lawsuit. A group of Medicaid and food recipients said the Human Services Department violated federal law by denying them welfare benefits to which they were entitled. The department is under various court orders that require it to write notices about benefits at a sixth-grade reading level and to accurately communicate to people the status of their benefits.

The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, an Albuquerque advocacy group that represents the plaintiffs, in January asked Gonzales to issue an injunction to temporarily prevent the department from instituting the rules. Portions of the rule changes went into effect Jan. 1, and the rest were to take effect this October.

But with the injunction, the state cannot institute the work rules until Dec. 31 unless it proves to the judge that the rules won’t result in New Mexicans illegally being denied food benefits, said Sovereign Hager, staff attorney for the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty.

Hager said Judge Gonzales agreed with the center that the state has been illegally denying benefits under the new rules. She said that Gonzales ordered the two parties in the case to meet for a status conference every three months to update him on how the department will implement the rules without improperly denying people assistance with food.

The Human Services Department has maintained that it “legally and properly implemented” the rules for able-bodied people receiving assistance.
But at Monday’s hearing, the center pointed to examples of New Mexicans who were denied benefits under the new rules.

“People were telling the workers, ‘I sleep outside.’ ‘I sleep in a baseball field dugout,’” Hager said in an interview. “The workers did not explain that there are exemptions for being homeless or exemptions for people being disabled.”

Hager said that the lack of proper information about how to claim exemptions worked against the needy. “It’s inevitable that people are just going to be cut off” from the benefits, she said.

The center and the department are scheduled to face off in another legal battle in April in which the center argues the state should be held in contempt of court for violating orders in the case. The state has filed objections to that motion in the long-running lawsuit.

Justin Horwath can be reached at 505-986-3017 or jhorwath@sfnewmexican.com.

Federal Court Halts New Mexico’s Illegal Limits on Food Assistance

Federal District Court Judge Kenneth Gonzales and Federal Magistrate Judge Carmen Garza issued an injunction late Monday evening preventing the state from implementing a new three month time limit on food assistance. The injunction protects 17,500 eligible New Mexicans from losing food assistance due to problems with the state’s administration of the time limit.

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

On January 1, 2016, the state began implementing new regulations that would penalize childless adults between the ages of 18-50 by limiting them to just 3 months of food assistance if they did not work at least 20 hours a week or participate in a qualifying job training program.

The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty has been seeking to prevent the state from establishing time limits until they could be implemented without causing eligible people to improperly lose food assistance. The law center filed a request for injunction on behalf of adults improperly subject to the penalty who had not been provided basic information about the rules. Named plaintiffs included homeless and disabled adults and working adults for whom benefits were illegally delayed.

In a six-hour hearing in Las Cruces, Judge Gonzales and Judge Garza heard testimony from people who were at risk of losing the food assistance for three years because the Human Services Department either failed to properly exempt them from the time limit or failed to give them the information necessary to comply with it. In issuing the injunction, the Court recognized the “severe harm,” that is likely to result from the state’s failed and illegal implementation of the time limit including increased hunger and malnutrition and an increased burden on food banks. The Court found that the harm to applicants greatly outweighed any administrative burden on the state of delaying implementation.

National data shows that adults subject to the time limit are extremely poor, living below 17% of the federal poverty level and usually ineligible for any other form of assistance. New Mexico has the highest unemployment in the United States and some of the high rates of food insecurity in the country. This is the second time that a Court has blocked Governor Martinez from implementing the three month time limit. A New Mexico District Court entered a Temporary Restraining Order in October of 2014 and the Department stipulated to an injunction.

Sovereign Hager, Staff Attorney at the Center on Law and Poverty stated “we are pleased that unemployed adults will not face the illegal loss of food assistance in addition to the economic hardship that many are already facing in New Mexico. The state must bring the administration of the food assistance program into compliance with the law before opting to implement a three month limit for unemployed adults. We hope that the state will take this time to fix program errors and ensure that any requirements provide meaningful opportunities for unemployed New Mexicans.”

Click here to download a pdf copy of the press release: Press Release-HSD flawed SNAP Time Limit implementation enjoined-2015-03-08

For more information, contact:
Gail Evans, Legal Director, New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty (505) 255-2840
Sovereign Hager, Staff Attorney, New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty (505) 417-2084

Center files suit to block additional work requirements for SNAP recipients

SNAP LogoOn January 27, the Center filed suit against the New Mexico Human Services Department regarding the state’s imposition of additional work requirements for 17,500 struggling SNAP recipients.

The New Mexico Human Services Department recently implemented new SNAP eligibility requirements for childless adults ages 18 to 50. Effective on January 1, 2016, the new requirements limit individuals to just three months of SNAP assistance if they cannot find a job that offers 20 hours of work a week or a qualifying job training program, regardless of how hard they are looking for work or if applicable work training is even available. Read more about the importance of SNAP for New Mexico communities here. (link to Defeating Hunger project page).

The Center on Law and Poverty filed suit against the Department to oppose these requirements. Our complaint demonstrates how the state’s administration of the eligibility requirements and the harsh new time limit violate federal law. We are asking the federal court to enjoin the Human Services Department from proceeding with these requirements because they conflict with federal law, adults haven’t received proper notice about them, and workers haven’t been properly trained on the requirements.

You can read more about our lawsuit in the Albuquerque Journal and the Santa Fe New Mexican.

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.