LAS CRUCES—A federal district judge ruled today that the New Mexico Human Services Department must continue to comply with a court order requiring it to fix systemic problems with processing Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Medicaid applications.
Judge Kenneth John Gonzales wrote in his order, “New Mexicans, now more than ever, rely on the timely and accurate processing of SNAP and Medicaid applications to obtain much needed help.”
“This pandemic continues to ravage families’ health and their ability to work,” said Teague Gonzalez, director of Public Benefits at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, which is representing the plaintiffs in the case. “It’s crucial that HSD comply with the law and remove unnecessary barriers to food and healthcare assistance.”
The long-running Hatten-Gonzales lawsuit was originally filed in 1989. While some progress has been made, the court requires a case review to determine if HSD has addressed entrenched problems in administering food and medical assistance.
In 2016, HSD whistleblowers testified that there was a statewide policy of falsifying information on emergency benefits applications so the agency could pass federal audits and deadlines. This illegal policy resulted in thousands of New Mexican families going without the food assistance they needed.
In 2018, a case review found ongoing errors in the processing of food and medical assistance cases.
In its order, the court found HSD’s request to end the court’s oversight of fixes to the problems “premature” and “counterproductive” and “threatens to set back the progress the parties have made to this point.”
The judge ordered a case file review of Medicaid and SNAP applications to continue and that parties engage in good faith negotiations.
“We were surprised that the state’s counsel thought it appropriate to file this motion right now when so many New Mexicans have even more need for help,” said the Center’s Gonzalez. “We will continue our efforts to ensure New Mexicans can access food and healthcare assistance in close coordination with the court appointed Special Master and HSD.”
Judge Kenneth Gonzales’s order can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/hatten-gonzales-v-scrase-order-staying-termination-of-consent-decree-2020-08-21/
The jointly developed corrective action plan can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/hatten-gonzales-v-scrace-joint-motion-to-approve-two-corrective-action-plans-2019-07-10/
LAS CRUCES—On Thursday at 10:30 a.m., in U.S. District Court in Las Cruces, Judge Kenneth Gonzales will hear an update on the New Mexico Human Services Department’s compliance with multiple court orders to remove barriers to food and medical assistance for eligible families.
At the hearing, the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty will provide information about a statistically significant review of food and medical assistance cases conducted between September 2018 to February 2019. Both the court appointed Special Master and the plaintiffs, represented by the Center, found that New Mexicans are still not getting the food and medical assistance they need because HSD continues to violate the law.
According to an extensive review by the Center of HSD client cases, HSD made errors in 202 out of 288 cases—an error rate of 70%. These errors led to 109 households of the 288 cases reviewed losing food or medical assistance, sometimes both. The Special Master validated nearly all these findings. The review found that HSD continues to illegally deny food and medical assistance in the following ways:
- HSD illegally denies food and medical assistance to families who fail to provide unnecessary paperwork.
- HSD’s own quality assurance team failed to find the vast majority of the errors found by the Center and the Special Master.
- HSD does not consistently apply eligibility policy and application procedures.
- HSD does not accurately inform families about their eligibility and what is needed to process their case.
- HSD’s management team lacks expertise to administer food and medical programs in accordance with federal law.
- HSD’s IT system requires changes to accurately process applications for benefits.
In September 2016, Judge Gonzales held former HSD Secretary Brent Earnest in contempt for failing to remove barriers to assistance for eligible families. The court appointed a Special Master to monitor and make recommendations to the department. In April 2018, the judge set a series of deadlines for HSD compliance with court ordered reforms.
The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty report on it’s case review can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/nmclp-report-on-hsd-case-review-2019-02-25-redacted/
The Gonzales v. Earnest joint status report can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/doc-873-joint-status-report-2019-05-01/
U.S District Court status conference on HSD compliance with court orders in Deborah Hatten Gonzales v. Brent Earnest, No. 88-385 KG/CG
Thursday, May 16, 2019 at 10:30 a.m.
United States Courthouse
4th Floor, North Tower, Mimbres Courtroom
100 N. Church Street
Las Cruces, New Mexico 88001
New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty attorneys
Court Appointed Special Master Lawrence M. Parker
HSD Secretary and Attorneys
Originally published in the Albuquerque Journal September 28, 2016
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.
Republished from the Las Vegas Optic. See the original column here.
Tuesday, July 19, 2016 at 6:30 pm (Updated: July 19, 6:42 pm)
U.S. Magistrate Judge Carmen Garza has concluded that the New Mexico Human Services Department should have someone looking over its shoulder to help ensure that it complies with court orders and federal law in the administration of federally funded benefits.
According to The Associated Press, Garza is also recommending a contempt finding against the agency, which oversees the distribution of federal food aid and Medicaid health care benefits to the poor.
To be sure, those are merely proposals at this point; the department has 14 days to file its objections, and the department is already saying that it doesn’t agree with everything in the judge’s decision.
Still, it’s unfortunate — though not surprising — that such extreme measures are necessary to get the department to follow the law and to finally comply with court orders that have gone unfulfilled.
The harsh measures being recommended are not surprising because of the striking testimony presented during the court proceedings in the case.
“Caseworkers’ sworn testimony that they were instructed by managers to fraudulently alter applicant information has essentially not been refuted,” Garza said. According to The Associated Press, Garza also noted that managers overseeing supplemental nutrition benefits invoked their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination during the proceedings.
The Human Services Department’s office of inspector general and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are investigating that part of the case.
We don’t doubt that the state Human Services Department has a difficult job with tight deadlines and large caseloads.
But it’s also important to remember that the agency exists to serve as a safety net for our state’s most vulnerable residents.
The aid this agency provides helps our state’s poor put food on the table for their families and get medical care for them. Playing games with that aid is unconscionable and wrong.
If it takes a special master looking over the agency’s shoulder to force it to do the right thing, then so be it.
According to The Associated Press, the special master would have expertise in determining eligibility for Medicaid and food aid. That individual would also be knowledgeable with the organizational and computer systems used to manage the state’s caseload.
The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, which brought forth the federal lawsuit on behalf of aid beneficiaries, was pleased with Garza’s decision, which was issued Monday.
“The things we have been asking for are very simple,” attorney Sovereign Hager told AP. “Train your workers on what the law requires, make sure the IT system does what it’s supposed to, make sure notices are intelligible and make sense.”
That seems reasonable to us.