Your action is needed urgently – the House and Senate just sent a tax package today to Governor Martinez to help avert more deep budget cuts that would further slash funding for our schools, healthcare and public safety agencies. New Mexico is facing school closures and further reduction to classrooms and teachers, the elimination of certain Medicaid services for low-income families and people with disabilities, and a worsening public safety crisis from under-resourcing our courts and other key agencies.
House Bill 202 makes responsible and overdue changes to the tax code, including to level the playing field for small businesses by taxing out of state internet sellers, close up tax loopholes for certain industries, and update the gas tax so the funds can be invested into our roads.
Please call the Governor’s office at 505-476-2200. Ask her to sign HB202, and not to veto any part of it. Let her know that New Mexicans will not accept more budget cuts and that you support this tax package as a fair solution that does not hurt our families. It will only take a minute to leave a message.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The NM Center on Law and Poverty is joining with our partners MAZON and FRAC to oppose this harmful provision! Please consider having your organization sign on to this statement.
H.R. 5003 – The Child Nutrition and Education Act of 2016 – passed out of the House Education and Workforce Committee on May 18. The bill includes very harmful provisions that would hurt food insecure children. Among the worst is a proposal for a three-state block grant of school meal programs.
MAZON is strongly encouraging our partners to openly and vigorously oppose the block granting provision and engage others in their networks and communities to join in the fight.
FRAC along with national, state and local partners is launching an intensive nationwide campaign against these efforts to block grant the school meal programs, or any other child nutrition program, during this reauthorization process.
It’s time to act!
Step 1: Sign your organization onto this statement opposing the block grant provisions included in H.R. 5003.
Step 2: Share the statement widely and ask partners to sign on. Our goal is to have 2,500 organizations signed on over the next several weeks.
Step 3: Join FRAC for a webinar titled National Call to Action – Oppose House Efforts to Block Grant and Weaken the Child Nutrition Programs, Monday, June 6 at 2:30PM Eastern Time.Register here. Join leaders in the House of Representatives and thousands of organizations in the campaign launch to learn and strategize about upcoming actions. To learn more about the House CNR Bill and the block grant provision, read FRAC’s latest analysis of the bill.
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.
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.