Medicaid buy-in will help everyone in New Mexico

Anhdao Bui / Co-Interim Director, New Mexico Asian Family Center
This appeared in the Albuquerque Journal on March 25, 2019.

There are many stories in New Mexico’s Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) community about lives cut short by lack of access to health care. As the co-interim director of the New Mexico Asian Family Center (NMAFC), I hear these stories almost daily. Now that funding to develop a Medicaid buy-in plan has passed the Legislature, I urge Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to seize this opportunity to craft a plan that will extend coverage to all New Mexicans. AAPIs and all families need this affordable health care coverage option.

The Medicaid buy-in is an innovative idea that would allow eligible New Mexico residents to pay a reasonable monthly premium for the trusted health care coverage that Medicaid has provided for more than 50 years. That includes preventive care, childbirth and prenatal care, and even specialty care.

For one family that I worked with, New Mexico’s Medicaid buy-in plan is coming too late. But for so many more in our community, it will be a welcomed relief that will finally make life-saving health care affordable and accessible.

Last year, a 55-year-old grandfather came to NMAFC asking for help accessing health care. He had moved from Vietnam to Albuquerque a few years before with his wife. Their daughter had married an American man and started a family of her own here. Working and raising kids, particularly for low-income, immigrant families, can be overwhelming. A multi-generational household can help bridge gaps in childcare and income, and the daughter and son-in-law were grateful to have her parents living with them.

Shortly after arriving in Albuquerque, though, the grandfather began experiencing severe headaches. Without financial resources, he was unable to access care in the United States. It wasn’t until he made a trip back to Vietnam that he went to a doctor. The news was devastating: He had brain cancer.

Back in New Mexico, he was ineligible for Medicaid because he had not been in the state for five years. Desperate to get treatment, he and his wife moved again. This time to California where he could access Medicaid. He began chemotherapy, but the treatment made him weak and, without being able to work, he couldn’t afford the cost of rent, food and basic necessities. He and his wife had to move back in with their daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren in Albuquerque. He was with his family, but he was without care.

When I started working with him through the center, he had gone many months without any treatment. He was weak, and his family was scared. I was able to get an exception for him to receive coverage through UNM Care. He briefly resumed treatment, but, I am sad to say, died a few months ago.

Timely access to affordable health care could have saved – or at the very least prolonged – this man’s life, giving him more time with his family. It is not too much to ask that our elders be able to see a doctor, and to see their grandchildren grow up.

Talk to any of the more than 40,000 AAPIs living in New Mexico and you will hear a similar story. A friend who lost a limb because she couldn’t afford medical attention until it was too late. A cousin who died from pneumonia as a result of the flu. A grandchild born prematurely due to inadequate access to prenatal care. It’s time to change the way families access health care.

With a Medicaid buy-in plan in place, New Mexicans, including those like the grandfather I worked with, will be able to get covered and get care – without fear of bankrupting themselves or their families.

We cannot change that family’s story. It’s too late. But, by adopting a Medicaid buy-in plan in New Mexico, we can provide a better quality of life for the thousands of other New Mexicans – in the Asian Pacific Islander community and around the state – who lack health care coverage.

Medicaid buy-in works for working families

By Richard Ranger
This appeared in the Santa Fe New Mexican on March 8, 2019

When my wife and I first got married, we didn’t have health insurance. We didn’t think we needed it. We were young and healthy. Plus, even though we both worked multiple jobs, none of our employers provided health coverage, so there wasn’t an obvious way to even get insurance.

All of that changed once we found out that we were expecting a baby.

We quickly realized that we could not afford the doctor bills. The cost of prenatal visits, prenatal vitamins and specialty care added up fast. We talked it over and decided to apply for Medicaid. Unfortunately for us — like so many other New Mexicans — we made slightly too much money to qualify for Medicaid, and we certainly couldn’t afford overwhelming costs of private insurance. The premiums, deductibles and prescription drug costs were just too much for our family to bear.

We had to make difficult decisions to get health coverage. We didn’t have any other options. It was clear that Medicaid was the coverage that made sense for our family because it covered all of the essential services we needed without saddling us with medical debt. Fortunately, a change in our financial situation allowed us to reapply and finally qualify for Medicaid.

Medicaid was a huge help. Doctors’ appointments were easy to make and we finally had access to quality, affordable health care. As a result, we are the proud parents of Isaak, our 6-year-old son who brings us joy every day. We are grateful that he is healthy and grateful that Medicaid helped make that happen.

As much as my family would like to pursue better economic opportunities, we worry that the high cost of health care will risk our family’s health and financial well-being. Unfortunately, in order to keep the health insurance we need, we’ve had to put off pursuing careers in our community. We aren’t being true to ourselves and working the way that we always talked about. And the only thing that’s holding us back is our need for health coverage. That’s not the way things should be.

Fortunately, there is an option to help families like ours: Medicaid buy-in. It’s a simple idea that would allow families who don’t currently qualify for Medicaid or Medicare and who can’t get subsidized insurance through the Affordable Care Act to pay reasonable monthly premiums for the quality, trusted coverage provided by Medicaid. My wife and I know how well Medicaid takes care of families. We have a strong son as proof. We would welcome the opportunity to work full time again to support our family and be able to pay for health care coverage we trust.

That’s why my whole family — even Isaak — has been speaking out at the New Mexico Legislature in support of the Medicaid Buy-in Act, House Bill 416. We know what Medicaid buy-in would mean to real New Mexico families who want to work and need access to health care. It would mean the chance to work hard, the chance to get ahead and the ability stay healthy. And that means a lot.

My wife and I have learned so much about the legislative process by volunteering with Strong Families New Mexico and speaking out on behalf of our family and those like us in our community. We’ve attended hearings, testified in committees and stayed late into the evening for important votes. I’m glad to say that the bill is moving forward in both the House and Senate. But I am also worried. We need representatives and senators to continue to support Medicaid buy-in and to pass it out of its final committees. With successful floor votes in the House and the Senate, we could send this bill to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who has said she would sign it.

We want to be able to tell our son that the Legislature did the right thing and created Medicaid buy-in. New Mexico working families need a health care solution that works for them — the Medicaid buy-in.

Richard Ranger lives in Gallup.

Medicaid Buy-in: An opportunity to improve women’s health in New Mexico

By Sydney Tellez
This appeared in the NM Political Report on March 1, 2019.

We have the opportunity in New Mexico to become a national champion for women’s healthcare by creating a Medicaid Buy-In.

This straightforward proposal, championed in the Legislature by Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino and Rep. Debbie Armstrong, will allow some New Mexico families to pay for the trusted care that Medicaid already provides.

I know personally how Medicaid helps women and families right now. My sister-in-law was rear-ended while seven months pregnant, bringing my beautiful nephew into the world prematurely. Fortunately, they were already covered by Medicaid and didn’t have to be overly worried about the cost of care while they were frightened for their newborn son’s well being. As a result, little Bodhi is healthy–and his parents weren’t bankrupted by medical bills.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the reality for the 190,000 New Mexicans still living without health coverage. The result? Women and families of color in underserved communities have the highest rate of maternal death and infant mortality. A Buy-in plan will substantially impact these families’ ability to access prenatal and postpartum care–especially during emergencies like the one my sister-in-law faced.

When Medicaid was enacted more than half a century ago, no one imagined that the program would become the backbone of coverage for millions of women. Today, Medicaid provides health and long-term coverage to more than 1 in 10 women in New Mexico. In fact, Medicaid covers 72 percent of all births in New Mexico, helping to deliver healthy babies and to support new moms. Medicaid is also instrumental in providing coverage essential for healthy pregnancies. It covers prenatal visits and vitamins, ultrasounds and amniocentesis, childbirth by vaginal or cesarean delivery, and 60 days of postpartum care. That’s healthcare access that women and their families can count on.

Many New Mexico women and families, however, do not qualify for Medicaid. But they still struggle to make ends meet, choosing between keeping food on the table or paying for health insurance. Additionally, the coverage provided by the Affordable Care Act can be too costly to these families because they make too much money to access the ACA premium subsidies and they make too little to be able to afford the cost of falling ill.  Still, access to healthcare is crucial for New Mexico families, especially during pregnancy and for family planning.

Under a Medicaid Buy-in plan, eligible women would have access to health services, including prenatal and postpartum care. The care that Medicaid, through a Buy-in, can provide during and after pregnancy enhances the likelihood of healthier pregnancies and better birth outcomes.

Additionally, a Medicaid Buy-in plan could benefit aging New Mexico women. For elderly women who meet income eligibility requirements, Medicaid covers high-cost services provided in a skilled nursing facility, as well as home- and community-based healthcare for women who are entitled to nursing facility services. Aging New Mexicans who do not qualify for Medicaid today, under a Buy-in system, could rely on Medicaid for healthcare related to a physical or mental disability or chronic condition, treatment for breast or cervical cancer, and even long-term care services.

New Mexico is already a frontrunner for women’s reproductive health because of our thoughtful laws to respect the personal decisions parents and families make regarding abortion. A natural next step is for New Mexico to create a Medicaid Buy-in, which would propel New Mexico to the top of the list for women’s access to healthcare overall.

New Mexico families, women and communities embody resilience in the face of adversity. With reproductive healthcare access under attack federally, New Mexicans are leading the way to protect women, families and future generations. We must take the same proactive approach to protecting women’s access to quality healthcare by creating a Medicaid Buy-in. That is why the Southwest Women’s Law Center supports a Medicaid Buy-in and urges legislators to vote for this bill that supports New Mexico women and their families.

Sydney Tellez is the Policy Advocate for the Southwest Women’s Law Center.

Healthy Workforce ABQ to Continue Fight for Workers’ Right to Earn Paid Sick Leave 

ALBUQUERQUE, NM – Healthy Workforce ABQ, the campaign behind the proposed ordinance for earned sick days, vowed today to continue its fight to ensure that all workers have access to earned paid sick leave, after unofficial election returns showed a narrow margin of 718 more votes against the ordinance.

“No one should have to choose between a paycheck and their health or taking care of a sick child,”said Andrea Serrano, Executive Director of OLE. “Throughout this campaign, we talked with workers, families, and small business owners who agreed Albuquerque workers need the right to earn sick days. But this ordinance faced great odds. Well-connected business interests undertook a campaign of misinformation that confused both the press and voters about the provisions of the law. The measure was relegated to the back of the ballot, without a summary, in illegible seven point font that many people could not read. This election doesn’t change the fact that everyone agrees Albuquerque workers should have the basic right to earn sick leave. We will continue to fight for it.”

Local community organizations have been working tirelessly to educate the public on the earned sick leave initiative since last summer, when over 24,000 voters in Albuquerque signed the petition to get it on the ballot.

“I have never had earned paid sick days. I have a child with autism, and many times I have had to choose between taking him to his medical appointments or not receiving a day’s worth of pay,” said Edgar Salinas, a low-wage immigrant worker and an active member of EL CENTRO de Igualdad y Derechos. “My situation is not unique. Tens of thousands of workers are taking care of children and elderly parents. It is reprehensible that well-funded groups, driven by ideology instead of sound policy, choose to undermine working families’ ability to care for one another rather than strengthen and support the workers who are a cornerstone of the economy. We, Albuquerque’s working families, will continue to fight for our rights to support our families and strengthen Albuquerque. La lucha sigue!”

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Healthy Workforce ABQ is supported by Organizers in the Land of Enchantment (OLE), Strong Families New Mexico, El CENTRO de Igualdad y Derechos, New Mexico Working Families Party, the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, the Center for Civic Policy, and Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP).

Community Organizations Ask Court to Protect Minimum Wage and Paid Sick Ballot Initiative

By Elizabeth Wagoner, Supervising Attorney for Workers’ Rights

NMCLP Staff Attorney Tim Davis speaks at the May 4 press conference. Photo Credit: OLÉ

On May 4, 2017, several community organizations filed motions to intervene and motions to dismiss in a lawsuit that corporate and industry groups filed to attempt to overturn the Albuquerque Minimum Wage Ordinance (MWO) and keep the Albuquerque Healthy Workforce Ordinance off the 2017 ballot. The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty represents the intervenors in this case.

The increases to the Albuquerque minimum wage passed in 2012 with the overwhelming support of Albuquerque voters. Now, almost five years later, corporate business interests seek to undercut the democratic process and invalidate the Albuquerque Minimum Wage, cutting the wages of hard working people across Albuquerque by $1.30 – from $8.80 per hour to $7.50 per hour. The corporate interests’ legal challenge to the Healthy Workforce Ordinance ballot initiative is a similarly undemocratic effort by corporations to keep Albuquerque voters, as is their right, from deciding whether workers should have the right to earn sick leave to recover from illness or care for ill family members. The corporate plaintiffs in the lawsuit do not stop there, however. They also ask this Court to take away the voters’ democratic right to propose and vote on ballot initiatives ever again.

The community organizations that fought successfully to put these important workplace rights on the ballot are now fighting once again to protect these laws. The first Motion to Dismiss asks the court to dismiss all of the challenges to the Albuquerque Minimum Wage Ordinance, and a second Motion to Dismiss asks the court to dismiss the Healthy Workforce Ordinance challenges. Both motions argue that the industry claims are flimsy, without merit, and are wholly without respect for the democratic process.

Find the motions to dismiss here and here.

Find the motions to intervene here and here.

Lawsuit Alleging DWS Fails to Enforce Wage Protection Laws Goes Forward

SANTA FE – Today, New Mexico’s First Judicial Court ruled that a lawsuit charging that Department of Workforce Solutions (DWS) must enforce state laws protecting working people against wage theft from their employers can go forward. Today’s ruling denies DWS’s request to dismiss the lawsuit. The individuals and groups who filed the case will request a final ruling from the court this summer.

Wage theft is the illegal practice of not paying workers for all of their work, including violating minimum wage laws, not paying overtime, and forcing people to work off the clock.

The lawsuit, Olivas v. Bussey, was filed in January 2017 by four workers who were victims of wage theft and workers’ rights organizations El Centro de Igualdad y Derechos, New Mexico Comunidades en Accion y de Fé (CAFÉ), Organizers in the Land of Enchantment (OLÉ), and Somos Un Pueblo Unido. Elizabeth Wagoner of the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty (the Center) is lead counsel on a legal team that includes the Center’s Gail Evans and Tim Davis, Santa Fe attorney Daniel Yohalem, and Gabriela Ibañez Guzmán of Somos Un Pueblo Unido.

“Our government should be working with us, not against us, to hold unscrupulous employers accountable when wages are stolen and our rights trampled on,” said Ibañez Guzmán. “This administration has long ignored the conditions of struggling workers in New Mexico, but our families are pushing back. It’s important that this case is moving forward so wage theft victims can be heard and the department’s disregard for the law exposed.”

“This ruling reaffirms that every hard working New Mexican – not just those with the money to hire lawyers–deserves to be paid for every hour they work,” said Wagoner. “Our state government cannot turn a blind eye when employers break laws protecting working people.”

New Mexico has some of the strongest wage enforcement laws in the country. In 2009, the legislature made them even stronger. However, DWS illegally refused to enforce these new laws and imposed onerous and arbitrary internal policies that have enabled unscrupulous employers to get away with wage theft unchecked.

“DWS’s failure to enforce New Mexico’s wage and hour laws is one more example of how hard working New Mexicans are getting the short end of the stick in our state—but they are fighting back. This case is too important to dismiss, particularly given the profound impact wage theft has on New Mexican working families. We applaud the ruling and look forward to continuing to expose systemic failures by DWS to enforce New Mexico wage and hour laws, “said Marco Nuñez, workers’ justice coordinator at El CENTRO de Igualdad y Derechos.

A copy of the ruling can be found here.

 Background on the lawsuit:

New Mexico’s state-level protections against wage theft include: (1) Mandatory statutory damages to victims of wage theft, calculated as full back wages, plus interest, plus double damages; (2) At least a three-year statute of limitations, or longer when the violation is part of a “continuing course of conduct”; (3) A minimum wage of $7.50 and overtime pay for hours over 40 at one-and-one-half times the employee’s regular hourly rate; (4) the department must investigate and take legal action on valid and enforceable claims filed by workers who cannot afford private attorneys.

The lawsuit charges that DWS has:

▪       illegally imposed a $10,000 cap on wage theft: they do not investigate or take any enforcement action on wage claims worth $10,000 or more.

▪       imposed an illegal one-year time limit on liability for wage theft: they do not investigate or take any enforcement action on claims for back pay that go back more than one year from the date an employee files a claim, despite the N.M. Legislature’s 2009 decision to lengthen the statute of limitations for wage claims to at least three years.

▪       illegally imposed a policy against holding employers liable for any statutory damages at the administrative enforcement phase of a case, thereby eliminating the financial deterrent for engaging in wage theft, despite the Legislature’s 2009 decision to double the penalty for engaging in wage theft.

▪       adopted policies and procedures that require the permanent closure of wage claims for procedural reasons, such as when a claimant misses a 10-day deadline, without regard to the strength of the claim or whether the claimant received notice of the deadline.

The lawsuit seeks an order that the Department of Workforce Solutions must stop applying these unlawful policies, as well as an order that the Department must re-open and investigate cases impacted by these policies.

The defendants in the lawsuit are the Department of Workforce Solutions, Cabinet Secretary Celina Bussey, and Labor Relations Division Director Jason Dean.

In January, 2017, the First Judicial District Court issued a temporary restraining order requiring the Department of Workforce Solutions to accept wage claims without regard to the Department’s illegal $10,000 cap or illegal one-year lookback period and to keep records of claims impacted by these policies.

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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.

Op-ed: HSD needs to do its work more efficiently

Republished from the Albuquerque Journal. See the original guest column here.

By Ruth Hoffman / Lutheran Advocacy Ministry-NM
originally published Thursday, June 9th, 2016 at 12:02am

Here in New Mexico, we have long struggled with taking care of our most vulnerable families. Recent reports that state workers at the Human Services Department were being pressured into denying emergency SNAP (food stamps) to hungry people and families are very disturbing. For over two decades, a federal court has found HSD’s track record for basic processing of medical and food assistance benefits to be in violation of federal law.

Government is one of the ways that we can work together to address the needs of our communities, and it can make a positive difference in people’s lives. But when government doesn’t work or fails to do its job, it can cause a lot of pain. Just ask a family of four in Hobbs. State workers left them without Medicaid coverage for seven months because HSD had failed to send a renewal notice or to check information the family had already given them.

Or an elderly man from Alamogordo with no income who had his SNAP assistance terminated last August because state workers forgot to send him a legally required notice. After going three weeks without food assistance, his benefits were reinstated, but only after the man went to an Income Support Division office to submit a new application for food assistance.

Whether it involves Medicaid or SNAP, these stories and others point to an unacceptable problem at HSD of improperly denying families needed services and failing to notify recipients about delays. Seniors and low-income families are on their own to figure out how to resolve these issues. Indeed, according to a study by the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, HSD failed to send Medicaid clients the required renewal forms 50 percent of the time. Over 65 percent of the time, they failed to alert families about delays in their SNAP applications or about ways to resolve the delays.

As the government agency charged with assisting low-income people, families and seniors, the Human Services Department should implement common-sense steps to improve efficiency and save money. This can be done by eliminating requests for unnecessary documents, making client notices more accurate and understandable, and automating Medicaid renewals.

Additionally, it is critical that HSD provide much better job training, support and resources for the state workers who determine eligibility for badly needed assistance. Creating a comprehensive, accurate online worker manual would help workers process cases efficiently and as required by law.

We believe that we are called to do everything in our power to serve our neighbors. While faith communities throughout our state serve and help people living in poverty and experiencing hunger every day, they can’t do all that is needed and must be done. Our government has a role to play, and the agencies of our government must carry out that role by implementing a benefits system which is efficient and does its best to not put up barriers to accessing the assistance that eligible low-income New Mexicans need.

We know that eligible families are trying to get back on their feet; they are trying to do the right thing. We should expect nothing less from state leaders. Creating a more efficient benefits system won’t solve everything, but it can make a big difference in the lives of families and the people who most need help.

KUNM: Tough Choices After State Delays Emergency Food Aid

Republished from kunm.org. Listen to the original radio story here.

By MARISA DEMARCO • MAY 18, 2016

Hungry people in New Mexico may have been denied expedited food assistance after their applications were falsified and put on hold. That’s according to testimony from state workers in recent weeks during an ongoing hearing about whether the Human Services Department is fit to process applications.

Despite working seven days a week, Kimberly Jones participates in SNAP to make ends meet. Photo Credit: MARISA DEMARCO / KUNM
Despite working seven days a week, Kimberly Jones participates in SNAP to make ends meet.
Photo Credit: MARISA DEMARCO / KUNM

In December, Kimberly Jones was struggling to get the hours she needed as a home health aide, a job she’s done for 18 years. She was living in a hotel room, and every day, she had to make a choice. “Do I eat or do I pay for the room? Or how can I squeeze them both? Because, you know, the hotel wants their money,” she said. “They don’t care if you eat or not.”

She decided to apply for food stamps. She said the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program told her she was eligible for emergency help, and that she should see her EBT card fill up soon. “Food is the only thing that you can do to get by,” Jones said. “To make things a little easier is not having to worry if you’re going to be able to eat.”

According to emergency food stamps rules, the money should have shown up within seven days. But it didn’t, not for weeks. After asking around, Jones found a lawyer focused on poverty issues who helped her make the call to find out what happened. Jones remembered they waited on hold for more than an hour. But when they finally spoke to someone, she said she got her food stamps right then and there. It was February—two months after she applied.

“When you take someone’s food from them, they don’t have anything, and that’s really sad,” she said. “And for them to take that away, it makes you feel like nothing.”
These days, Jones lives in her own apartment. She works seven days a week, from about 9 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. She says she still gets about $75 a month in food assistance and has to make use of church charity programs and food pantries around town. “It doesn’t matter if you have a piece of job or try to have a piece of job, you know, food helps,” she said.
Lawyer Sovereign Hager with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty said Jones’ story is common. “Some of the poorest people in New Mexico are being denied those benefits in order to make processing numbers look better,” she said.

In recent hearings, state workers took the stand to testify that applications were changed, falsified, by the division so they showed people who were seeking food assistance had more assets than they did. That way it wouldn’t look like the state was blowing deadlines.

Hager watched high-ranking Human Services Department officials plead the fifth over and over in court—97 times, even when they were asked basic questions. HSD did not respond to KUNM’s half a dozen requests for an interview. So it’s not clear who knew what.

Hager said their inability to answer questions in court speaks for itself. “Well, of course they know what’s going on. If they didn’t know what was going on, they could testify to that,” she said. “So, obviously this goes up to the highest levels. It’s extremely troubling.”

Hager said the feds should investigate the department—and the state auditor should, too. But, she added, people need help now. The center’s asking the court to put a third-party expert in charge of processing applications in New Mexico. “We want the judge to enter an order as soon as possible to that effect just to protect those families,” she said.
Miles Conway said these issues have been going on for a long time and he’s proud of the whistleblowers who put their jobs on the line by speaking out in court. He’s with the public service employees union.

“There are constantly new mandates being handed down from Santa Fe,” he said. “It’s just becoming very difficult to even to do the jobs that these individuals are trained to do, and that they are ethically sworn to do in a certain manner.”

It was sad, Conway said, watching these court hearings unfold, and he’s apologetic to all the New Mexicans who had to struggle to feed themselves or their kids. “I felt bad that we hadn’t been able to connect the dots to find this smoking gun sooner so that we could have begun to make this very serious change in how New Mexico is running its Income Support Division,” he said.

And as for Jones? She said the state has to step up. “I hope they get it right. For us little people, get it right.”

The next hearing is set to begin July 6 in Las Cruces.

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The Human Services Department wouldn’t make anyone available for an interview, but right before airtime, a spokesperson emailed a statement saying the department takes the allegations seriously and has launched an internal investigation.

Thanks to Samantha Sonner of KRWG in Las Cruces for contributing to this report.

KUNM’s Public Health New Mexico project is funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Con Alma Health Foundation and McCune Charitable Foundation. Find more info on our site, publichealthnm.org, along with links to more coverage by our partner KNME / New Mexico PBS.