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

NM Political Report: Employees say HSD asked them to falsify SNAP applications

Republished with permission from the NM Political Report. Click here to read the original article here.

Want to read more on this topic? Check out the coverage in:
Albuquerque Journal: Human Services Department workers testify data from SNAP applicants was doctored
Santa Fe New Mexican: State workers admit fudging numbers to deny food aid to poor
NM Political Report: NM Auditor, HSD launch probes into SNAP fraud allegations
Santa Fe New Mexican: Human Services Dept. investigating whether agency falsified welfare applications

Employees say HSD ask them to falsify SNAP applications

By Joey Peters

Multiple state employees alleged that the Human Services Department instructed them to falsify numbers on federal food stamp applications in explosive testimonies in federal court in Albuquerque Thursday afternoon.

One was Jeannette Roybal, who processes Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, applications in Las Cruces. She testified that her supervisor told her in January to inflate the assets of a SNAP applicant so the application would be considered non-expeditable.

According to federal law, those who qualify for expedited SNAP benefits based on extremely low income levels must receive their benefits within seven days of applying. These are also known as emergency SNAP benefits. But many of these cases that appeared to qualify weren’t resolved by HSD within that amount of time, leading to overdue cases, according to multiple testimonies.

“There were no resources in the case to add,” Roybal said before court. “It’s not the proper way.”

Sandra Saiz, a line manager for Income Support Division in Portales, testified that higher-ups encouraged her workplace to add fake assets to SNAP applications so the department could cut down its growing list of overdue expedited SNAP cases.

“The directive was to do whatever you had to make it non-expedite,” Saiz said in her testimony.

Usually, that meant trying to “find something you missed somewhere” in the application for benefits, according to Saiz. But when asked by a state lawyer she ever made up a number to add to an application, she replied: “I very seldom do it, I don’t like to do it, but yes, I have done it.”

The testimony came during a hearing for a legal motion asking for HSD to be held in contempt of court for not complying with provisions in a 25-year-old consent decree. The consent decree was the result of a lawsuit that alleged the department didn’t process food stamp and Medicaid applications properly.

The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty is asking federal court to appoint an independent monitor to oversee several HSD functions, including ISD.

The directive for the Portales ISD office came from the office’s regional office manager in April 2015, according to case processor Angela Dominguez.

“He came and said they had been selected for federal review,” Dominguez said during testimony. “He was concerned how we were going to justify [the overdue expedited cases]. He said, ‘You can go in there and check and add assets.’”

Adding assets, Dominguez said, would expand the time period HSD had to process these cases. But that means people who qualify for expedited SNAP benefits won’t receive them.

“In my opinion we’re cheating those families,” Dominguez said in her testimony.

HSD management went as far as to change a processor’s case notes to show that they reflected adding assets to an application, according to Margaret Vasquez-Padilla, who works at ISD in Taos. Vasquez-Padilla testified that she processed an overdue expedited SNAP case that her superiors later added $400 in assets to.

“How did they reflect $400 in assets?” Sovereign Hager, an attorney for Center on Law and Poverty, asked during the hearing.

“They just put them there,” Vasquez-Padilla replied.

Vasquez-Padilla said she knew her superiors changed her case notes on the application. She said she kept her old case notes “because this has happened before.”

Another ISD employee, Frederick Garcia, testified that he knew employees would add fake assets to SNAP applications.

“I’ll see it quoted as ‘cash on hand,” Garcia, who works in Las Cruces, said.

During testimony, HSD Secretary Brent Earnest argued that resorting to an independent monitor, known as a receivership, “seems like a recipe for chaos.” Earnest said such measures would cost money that could otherwise go to the poor.

Addressing the lawsuit as a whole, Earnest acknowledged that he “makes mistakes” and that “everyone in the department is going to make mistakes” but that HSD “has a way to address them.”

Shanita Harrison, a deputy director for ISD, addressed the employees’ allegations by accusing four of those who testified about the fake assets of making errors on their cases.

During her own testimony, Harrison accused Garcia of marking a SNAP case as expedited that didn’t qualify because the family involved “received benefits in Alabama during the month of their application.”

Harrison also accused Dominguez of processing a case that was not expedited because the family had $2,200 in income.

She alleged Vasquez-Padilla made an error by processing a renewal application as a new application. Finally, Harrison accused Roybal of not properly updating the data on one of her cases.

All five employees who testified said they feared retaliation for coming forward.

Closing arguments for the legal motion will likely happen next week, after which the federal judge will decide on whether to appoint an independent monitor to oversee these parts of HSD.

NM Political Report: Thousands of overdue applications still eligible for Medicaid payment

Republished with permission from the NM Political Report. Click here to read the original article here.

By Joey Peters

An advocacy group says data in a legislative report confirms suspicions that a majority of pending Medicaid applications in the last two years were eligible for benefits.

For Sovereign Hager, a staff attorney with the Center on Law and Poverty, the fact that the vast majority of those applications were still eligible for benefits is vindication of her organization’s legal battles with the state on the issue.

According to figures from the state Human Services Department, which administers the federal Medicaid and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the department saw 223,000 overdue renewal applications for Medicaid benefits between May 2014 and December 2015. The state agency estimates 97 percent of those applications met Medicaid requirements, despite being overdue.

“These overdue cases are the ones HSD would like to close for procedural reasons,” Hager said.

She’s referring to a May 2014 court order that barred HSD from automatically denying unprocessed Medicaid and SNAP cases. The state agency had been automatically denying all cases that it hadn’t processed within 30 days ever since it changed its IT servers in the fall of 2013.

That court order came after the Center for Law and Poverty filed a legal motion to force HSD to follow requirements from a 1991 consent decree born out of a lawsuit against the state.

The lawsuit, filed in 1988 by Debra Hatten-Gonzales, accused HSD of jeopardizing Medicaid and food stamp eligibilities. The Center on Law and Poverty contends that in 25 years, HSD has never properly followed the consent decree.

Next week a federal judge will hear the Center’s motion asking for HSD to be found in contempt of court. The Center wants the judge to appoint independent expert to oversee key functions of the state agency until the state complies with the consent decree. Some lawmakers are joining in on the call for independent oversight.

“It really is a concern,” state Sen. Howie Morales told NM Political Report. “HSD is not addressing these issues unless a court orders them to.”

Though Hager contends the eligible overdue Medicaid applications since 2014 came thanks to the lawsuit, HSD attributes only 3 percent of them to the ongoing litigation. The state agency attributes the rest of overdue applications that otherwise meeting benefit eligibilities to Medicaid expansion from the federal Affordable Care Act.

A spokesman for HSD didn’t return a voicemail left Thursday by NM Political Report seeking comment.

The memo also estimates the lawsuit has cost the state $5.4 million since 2014. Most of that money—$3.4 million—is from administrative costs. The rest come from additional Medicaid costs.

The Legislative Finance Committee report also warns that an appointed independent monitor could “pose a significant financial risk.”

Morales acknowledges that costs are “a concern” but “not an underlying issue.”

“The underlying issue is HSD not following the law,” Morales said.

It’s a contention that HSD, which has accused the Center on Law and Poverty for not being “cooperative” or “constructive” with the process, doesn’t agree with.

In an April 11 letter to the Legislative Finance Committee, HSD Secretary Brent Earnest writes that his department “is in substantial compliance with the Debra Hatten-Gonzales court orders” and has made recent efforts to “streamline the application process via online and over-the-phone applications.”

“The department has put together a multi-disciplinary team of individuals that are focused on meeting the requirements of the DHG lawsuit,” Earnest wrote. “It is the department’s plan to continue to comply with the requirements of the consent decree and disengage from the lawsuit as soon as possible.”

The Legislative Finance Committee compares the potential independent oversight of parts of HSD to what recently happened to the California Department of Corrections. There, an independent monitor has overseen the state’s prison health care since 2006. That year, the oversight cost the state $882 million. By 2009, the costs skyrocketed to nearly $2 billion.

But Hager says this comparison is unfair. Instead, she refers to “churn”—known as the process when people eligible for benefits have an application rejected and then reapply—as in itself costly to a state.

This type of churn in Philadelphia cost Pennsylvania $9 million in “unnecessary administrative costs,” according to a 2015 Center on Law and Poverty analysis,

“Were it not for the lawsuit, those people would have reapplied and it would have cost the state money,” Hager said.

Santa Fe Reporter: A Broken Process

New Mexico is still struggling to comply with a decades-old court order to ensure benefits for indigent people

Republished with permission from the Santa Fe Reporter.
Click here to read the original article.

By Steven Hsieh

Abby Knowlton drove to the offices of the Santa Fe Income Support Division on March 23, 2015, to apply for Medicaid and food stamps. She pulled a slip from a number dispenser and sat down to wait. Along with dozens of other applicants, she answered questions on a form: Did she have income? No. Kids? No. Had she ever traded food stamps for guns or ammunition? No.

After hours—enough time for Knowlton to drop by her mother’s house for a snack and bathroom break—a Human Services Department worker called her to the front window. After reviewing her paperwork, she was approved.

Applying for assistance wasn’t originally in her plan, though. Knowlton, 33, moved back home to New Mexico to pursue a doctorate in Spanish. She previously worked as an interpreter at a Colorado hospital.

Knowlton always had health problems, including migraines that started when she was a child. One day, during a routine checkup, her blood pressure reading was so high that a nurse thought the machine was broken. Confusion turned to alarm. After running tests, a doctor diagnosed Knowlton with malignant hypertension. Her heart, lungs, kidneys and brain were all losing function and getting worse. Knowlton’s professional career was over.

Days after she was approved for food stamps, Knowlton received a form from Human Services identifying her as a “mandatory work participant.” The printout instructed her to complete a jobs training program “within 15 days of receiving this notice.” It went on to say, “This form must be returned by: (Date),” without indicating a date. If Knowlton had any questions, the form stated, she should call her caseworker. Knowlton had many questions. Among them: Who was her caseworker?

She called multiple toll-free numbers but couldn’t get the answers she was looking for. On a friend’s recommendation, Knowlton contacted the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. Attorneys investigated her case and said it was another in a long line of instances where the state’s process for awarding benefits is failing low-income New Mexicans.

Knowlton’s medical condition should have exempted her from New Mexico’s job search requirements, as soon as she applied for benefits, says Sovereign Hager, an attorney at the center. “The law requires Human Services to explain all of this in the interview and screen her for exemptions,” Hager says. “Had they asked, Abby could have explained she is disabled.”

Knowlton’s abundant free time and education helps her navigate the tangles of state bureaucracy. She also keeps meticulous records in a bulging red folder. The same cannot be said for all 230,907 New Mexicans who applied for food stamps or Medicaid in 2015. For many, a procedural misstep by the state can result in a loss of food assistance or health coverage.

“Families shouldn’t need an attorney helping them, because it’s the department’s obligation under federal and state law to provide assistance to people in an accessible way,” Hager says.

Human Services’ own data shows that the department improperly closes cases 47 percent of the time.

In 1991, the department entered into a consent decree, agreeing to comply with laws regarding the processing of Medicaid and food stamps, officially called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). But advocates say the state has repeatedly violated its terms. In 2013, when the Human Services Department switched to a new computer system, thousands of New Mexicans were automatically dropped from their SNAP benefits; a judge ordered the end of this practice. And in January, the court struck down increased penalties for noncompliance with requirements for food stamps.

Most recently, lawyers recommended that the court appoint a third-party “expert” to oversee functions related to the consent decree. For more than two decades, state officials have failed to implement fixes to a process that illegally delays or drops benefits, a court filing claims. Calls to customer service representatives often go unanswered.

A spokesman for the department did not respond to a request for comment for this story before presstime. Later, Kyler Nerison issued this statement: “We disagree with [the Center on Law and Poverty]. The Department is in substantial compliance with the court’s consent decree. [The center] has not been cooperative or constructive with this process and they continuously attempt to redefine the standards for compliance.”

Eleven days after her first trip to the Income Support Division, Knowlton returned with her medical records and a note from her doctor exempting her from the work requirements. She was able to keep the food assistance.

That would not be the end of her frustrations, though. In January, she applied to renew her SNAP benefits. According to her lawyers, she is eligible for a 24-month recertification, but workers granted Knowlton just three additional months of benefits after failing to schedule an interview with her, which Hager says violates procedures. After Knowlton’s attorneys followed up, the state acknowledged its oversight and granted her a yearlong recertification.

“It’s just always a pending, unclear mess,” Knowlton says.

Knowlton periodically logs onto a website set up for New Mexicans to check the status of their benefits. On Friday, the row for food stamps read: “This section is unavailable to view.”

See more at: http://www.sfreporter.com/santafe/article

Anti-poverty group: HSD needs federal monitor

Republished with permission from the NM Political Report. Click here to read the original article here.

By Joey Peters

Tens of thousands of New Mexicans are put at risk because of the state’s continued failure to adequately provide health care and food benefits to the poor, according to a legal motion filed by a group seeking to protect low-income residents.

Later this month, the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty will argue that a federal court should appoint an independent monitor to oversee some of these key tasks from the New Mexico Human Services Department.

human-services-department

It all stems back to a decades-old federal consent decree that advocates say the state is still struggling to meet.

Issued in 1990, the consent decree came as a result of a class action lawsuit that accused HSD of failing to provide food stamps and Medicaid benefits to recipients.

“The state wasn’t processing [food stamp and Medicaid] applications on time. People weren’t getting their benefits,” Sovereign Hager, a staff attorney with the Center on Law and Poverty, said in an interview. “The state agreed and it resulted in this order.”

human services departmentBut under the leadership of multiple New Mexico governors, HSD has still never been under full compliance of the consent decree.

The call for a monitor comes over the handling of specific sections of the consent decree.

Hager says things really came to a head in 2013, when HSD switched to a new IT system. The change led to the automatic denial of federal food assistance benefits, officially known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, to between 10,000 and 30,000 applicants.

“Federal law requires the state to look on the last day, make a decision and give notice of who’s at fault for the application not being processed in time,” Hager said.

Instead, HSD automatically denied these unprocessed cases in the fall of 2013, Hager says. The Center on Law and Poverty filed a motion accusing this practice of being illegal.

As a result, a federal court ordered HSD to stop “all procedural denials and closures” on SNAP applications.

As part of an agreement, HSD then allowed the Center on Law and Poverty to review two random samples of cases the department marked as “ready to deny or close,” according to the Center’s recent legal filing.

To its “shock,” the Center on Law and Poverty said in a legal filing it found only more problems with the state’s handling of federal benefits for low-income residents, including a backlog of 129,000 SNAP and Medicaid cases.

Since 2013, the Center on Law and Poverty has filed five court motions to try to get HSD to comply with the consent decree. Now, the organization is asking for the federal monitor.

HSD, according to the legal filing, is not properly delivering delay notices, conducting SNAP interviews on time, or issuing proper renewal notices. The legal advocacy group also faults the state department for using an outdated phone system and requiring “excessive Medicaid verification” requirements for applicants.

The Center on Law and Poverty wants the court to appoint a mediator to oversee these parts of HSD until it comes into full compliance with the consent decree.

An HSD spokesman didn’t return an email and voicemail message left Monday seeking comment for this story. But in a response to the Center on Law and Poverty’s legal filing earlier this month, HSD counsel calls the request to appoint a monitor an “extraordinary remedy” and says the advocacy group has not proved the department failed to take “all reasonable steps” to comply with court orders.

HSD instead contends it’s in “substantial compliance” with the consent decree. The department also criticizes the Center on Law and Poverty for not being “cooperative” or “constructive” with the process.

HSD blames its problems to meet federal requirements on “the complexity involved in compliance” with the consent decree. The department maintains that the “real confines” are working with outside companies it contracts with “to program necessary IT changes.”

“The changes being made are very complex, HSD’s task is large, and the recognition that to effectuate change requires time reflects reality,” HSD’s legal response reads.

The department also blames its failures on “new requests made by Plaintiffs.”

Hager, for her part, denies that requesting a monitor to oversee HSD compliance with federal law is extreme.

“We don’t want the state to pay fines or do anything punitive,” Hager said. “They need the leadership and the expertise to get things done.”

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

Governor and Legislature Must Change Course Fast to Fix the Budget Crisis, Put our Families First

Republished from the New Mexico Political Report. Also seen in the Albuquerque Journal and NM Politics.net

Kim-2015-09-23By Kim Posich, Executive Director of the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty

New Mexico is in a budget crisis. Our state’s economy is in shambles. We have the worst employment rates in the country and revenue projections have dropped over $200 million dollars from just before the session and they could get even worse.

The result of this economic free fall will be continued under-funding of our schools, jobs, economic development and public safety efforts – all the things most important to New Mexicans. Time is running out at the state legislature. If lawmakers do not take clear aim at the challenges we face, New Mexico will strike out for our families and children.

Strike one will be the budget. Deep cuts are coming that will threaten jobs and public safety. Healthcare, driven by Medicaid, is one of the only growing job sectors in New Mexico yet Medicaid is short by over $60 million in the budget being considered by the legislature. If we cut Medicaid by $60 million, we lose over $140 million in federal matching dollars. The Human Services Department has been clear that there is no room to make cuts other than to reduce services and payments to healthcare providers.

Our schools are still grossly under-funded, shortchanging our children and hurting our prospects for attracting and keeping businesses in New Mexico. With the current budget, we cannot invest in our teachers, Pre-K programs and educational initiatives that have been proven to work in preparing children for academic success and graduation.

The budget also underfunds agencies important for public safety. The judicial branch is struggling with its caseload and the corrections department lacks needed staffing. Deep cuts are also in store for the state’s behavioral health system including crisis intervention services. These are all essential to the integrity of our justice and rehabilitation system and ensuring our communities are safe.

Strike two will be failing to raise revenues. There are sensible opportunities to increase revenues without raising taxes and harming our families. One such proposal is delaying recently passed corporate tax breaks for two years. New Mexico cannot afford them right now. Another opportunity is to increase distributions from our $15 billion permanent fund, to provide needed funds to our education system, including early childhood education.

There are also ways to rebalance our tax structure to make it less heavily reliant on working families. According to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, the lowest income New Mexicans are paying a higher percentage of their income on overall taxes than the highest income households. We could modify capital gains deductions that do not benefit most New Mexicans. We could modify income brackets and actually lower taxes for working and middle class New Mexican families who are the vast majority of our residents.

New Mexico is also still sitting on over $1 billion in unused capital funds, as the state auditor’s office has discovered. These funds could be recouped to fill one-time shortfalls and our reserves, and yet little action has been taken by the Governor’s office to mobilize this funding.

Strike three will be public safety. The best antidote to crime is to have good paying jobs, a strong education system and healthy communities. Unfortunately, many of the so-called “tough on crime” bills being proposed in the legislature will be ineffective at reducing crime. If we are serious about our safety, then we must invest in our communities, behavioral health, law enforcement training and the justice system. Right now, our budget lacks in all these areas.

We need to make New Mexico safe. We need good paying jobs. And most importantly, we need a school system that will do right by our children. There is still time to make a turnaround. The Governor and Legislature should step up to the plate to raise revenues. We need our leaders to fund a state budget that addresses our economic crisis and the needs of everyday New Mexicans.