Judge Holds NM Human Services Chief in Contempt

human-services-departmentOriginally published in the Albuquerque Journal September 28, 2016
https://www.abqjournal.com/854783/judge-finds-contempt-in-hsd-legal-case.html

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.

Read the Order from Judge Gonzales here.

Op-Ed: Underfunding Medicaid is a Foolish Decision

shutterstock baby with doctor for website -2015-12-17by Abuko Estrada & Sireesha Manne

Originally published in the Albuquerque Journal, September 26, 2016. https://www.abqjournal.com/852766/underfunding-medicaid-is-a-foolish-decision.html

As taxpayers, we expect that when government spends our money it will be leveraged toward the best investments that provide the most benefits to our state.

Currently, New Mexico receives four dollars in federal funds for every state dollar invested in Medicaid. This money goes directly into patient care and supports over 50,000 mostly private-sector jobs in the state.

Rather than maximizing this $4 to $1 return on investment, New Mexico underfunded the Medicaid budget in the 2016 legislative session.

For fiscal year 2017, New Mexico is losing over $265 million in federal matching funds for Medicaid by failing to come up with $67 million to meet Medicaid’s minimum budget needs. Our health care system is taking a massive financial loss of over $330 million this year — or nearly $1 million a day!

This is a budgeting disaster for New Mexico that is expected to result in thousands of jobs being lost and, worse yet, a reduction in care to patients. Health care had been one of the only growing job sectors in the state because of the expansion of Medicaid that has added over 4,800 jobs in 2014 alone. However, due to budget shortfalls, the state has decided to reduce Medicaid payment levels for hospitals, doctors and other medical practitioners.

In response, health care providers have issued serious warnings that the low Medicaid rates will force them to downsize staff and potentially even close entire facilities.

The decision to cut Medicaid is self-defeating because New Mexico desperately needs jobs and a stronger health care system.

Nearly every county in the state – 32 out of 33 counties – has shortages for primary care, dental care and mental health care. The problems are most severe for patients in rural areas, where over 30 percent of residents live.

A prime example of health care workforce shortages is the closing of the obstetrics department at Alta Vista Regional Hospital in Las Vegas, N.M. Since 2010, three other hospitals have ceased their obstetric services, forcing expectant mothers to travel unreasonable distances for prenatal care.

Medicaid patients face the most serious consequences of these shortages. The Legislative Finance Committee recently found that up to half of providers in some areas in New Mexico are refusing to take new Medicaid patients.

Another report has found that a quarter of Dona Aña County residents needing hospitalization are going to Texas to get services. However, as illustrated in a recent news article, many doctors in Texas now refuse to see these patients because our state’s Medicaid reimbursement rates are too low.

This is just the beginning.

Medicaid provides health care coverage to two out of three children in New Mexico, as well as seniors, people with disabilities and low-income families. However, due to Medicaid budget shortfalls, the state next plans to cut health care benefits and charge higher patient fees.

Studies have shown that these changes are likely to result in massive losses of coverage for low-income families and will prevent patients from accessing needed services, only deepening New Mexico’s health care crisis.

New Mexico needs to responsibly maximize Medicaid matching funds. The first step is to fix the state’s revenue system. New Mexico is losing needed dollars to tax cuts and loopholes created in the last 15 years for large corporations and the highest-income earners, which have not proven to produce jobs or benefit the state.

There are several ways to raise revenues without hurting working families, such as freezing corporate tax rates at their current levels, which are now on par with other states and further reductions are not needed, taxing capital gains and investment income at the same rate as earned income and targeting products that are undertaxed and that are not necessities, such as new vehicles, alcohol and tobacco.

By not acting, New Mexico is losing precious resources that our state needs to spur job growth and support our health care infrastructure. Let’s put our money into our wisest investments – Medicaid is certainly one of the best.

Albuquerque Journal: NM high court hears case on workers’ comp for farm/ranch workers

Republished from the Albuquerque Journal. Click here to read the original article.

By Maggie Shepard / Journal Staff Writer
Thursday, April 28th, 2016 at 12:05am

On a small New Mexico dairy farm, an employee milking a cow does not have to be covered by workers’ compensation but the person’s supervisor, who might spend the workday in the same barn with the same animals, must be covered.

It’s a legal line that state Supreme Court justices hammered as they heard oral arguments Wednesday afternoon in a heated and possibly high-stakes case about a decades-old exemption in state law the allows farms and ranches with more than three employees to exempt laborers from workers’ compensation coverage.

A 2nd Judicial District Court judge and the Court of Appeals have ruled in one case that denying workers’ compensation to this type of farm and ranch worker is unconstitutional.

Dairy and ranch industry groups’ lawyers argued that forcing workers’ compensation coverage would cost farmers tens of millions of dollars, much of which they could not recoup from product sales, which usually are in markets that have government-set price controls.

When asked for the legal justification between the two groups of employees, like in the cow example, each of the industry lawyers arguing Wednesday struggled to find an answer that didn’t seem to anger the justices.

“It might save money by excluding certain workers, but is that a rational exclusion?” Chief Justice Charles Daniels asked the lead attorney representing the dairy and cattle industries.

Justices asked questions about how such an exemption could be considered constitutional.

Gail Evans, legal director for the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, argued that it is not and asked the justices to uphold a lower court’s ruling as such. She said those exempted are the “most vulnerable” employees.

She also asked that the justices make any unconstitutional judgment work retroactively.

But lawyers from the state’s Workers’ Compensation Administration and Uninsured Employer’s Fund argued that would open a flood gate of cases and a bureaucratic nightmare. They asked that if necessary, a ruling apply only to future claims to not only avoid a mess of back claims but also so that industry businesses can be fully aware of any new coverage requirement.

The coverage exemption also applies to household servants and real estate salespeople.

After more than two hours of arguments from five lawyers – oral arguments usually only last about one hour – before a packed and overflowing audience, justices took the case into consideration. It is not clear when they will make a decision.