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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Justin Horwath, The New Mexican

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Center files suit to block additional work requirements for SNAP recipients

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

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

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

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

National Commission releases report on hunger to Congress

hunger commission logo On Monday, January 4th, the bi-partisan Commission on Hunger issued its final report on the state of hunger in America. Created by Congress in 2014 to investigate and recommend strategies to reduce hunger, the Commission traveled around the nation, meeting with policymakers, advocacy organization, and communities.

The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty was invited by the Commission to provide testimony about food insecurity in New Mexico because of our expertise in food assistance programs. The information we provided helped Congresswoman Lujan-Grisham prepare an exchange on New Mexico’s attempt to impose SNAP work requirements in a November 2015 hearing. See the video here:
https://www.facebook.com/RepLujanGrisham/videos/744880462322142/

Our funding partner MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, a national voice in anti-hunger advocacy, also testified to the Commission. MAZON’s recommendations were adopted by the Commission and address strategies for ending hunger for veterans, active military, and their families.

We agree with the Commission’s findings that “Hunger is a significant problem that has serious, health, education and workforce consequences for our nation.” We hope that Congress will use these recommendations to advance anti-hunger efforts in America, so that every family will be able to put food on their table.

You can read the full report here: https://hungercommission.rti.org/

Human Services Department withdraws new hurdles to food assistance – for now…

Last week, the Human Services Department withdrew proposed changes to work requirements for food assistance, conceding that the Department could not legally implement the new rules.

This about-face was a direct result of our lawsuit challenging the illegal process that the state used to implement the new requirements. The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty and the Southwest Organizing Project, along with New Mexicans in need of food assistance, filed this suit on October 31st. Our case outlined how the Department failed to follow proper procedure when it did not make the full proposal available for public review. Additionally, the information that was released contained inaccurate descriptions of the rule changes and contradictory statements about how a person can fulfill the requirements, making it impossible for New Mexicans to comply.

A Santa Fe District Court judge found merit with the concerns we voiced and issued a temporary restraining order, meaning that the proposed changes would not go into effect until a full hearing could be held. Just hours before that hearing, Department attorneys advised the Center and SWOP that the state was withdrawing the proposal. On the same day, we learned that Human Services Department Secretary Sidonie Squier had resigned.

We believe the Human Services Department intends to reissue the new regulations, which include imposing harsh penalties on those who cannot meet the requirements: adults who do not understand and follow the rules could lose access to food assistance for the next 3 years, and other families could lose benefits for up to one year, devastating punishments for those struggling to eke out a living. We will continue to watch for these policy changes in order to defend this vital safety net.