Court blocks attempt to end lawsuit on food and Medicaid assistance


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/

Court finds management problems prevent HSD from fixing food and medical benefits applications

ALBUQUERQUE—A federal court found that lack of leadership and accountability in the New Mexico Human Services Department prevents it from fixing entrenched problems in food and medical benefit administration.

In a ruling issued late yesterday, U.S. District Court Judge Kenneth Gonzales set a series of deadlines for HSD compliance with court ordered reforms and required the appointment of knowledgeable subject matter experts in supplemental nutrition assistance program (SNAP), Medicaid, and eligibility for families that include immigrants in the department’s Income Support Division.

“We’re very hopeful that this ruling will lead to much needed changes in the department’s leadership,” said Sovereign Hager, managing attorney at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. “For there to be permanent improvement in administration, the Human Services Department leadership must have expertise and management abilities that give front line workers the tools they need to ensure New Mexicans can get food and medical assistance. HSD is still not processing applications in time, leaving too many children and families unable to access basic necessities.”

In September 2016, Judge Gonzales held the 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.

Despite court orders and the expertise provided by the Special Master, HSD continues to improperly deny eligible New Mexicans food and medical assistance and does not provide timely information about case decisions. Each month the department develops a backlog of unprocessed cases, a large share of phone calls go unanswered, and workers are not accurately trained on the requirements for processing food and medical assistance applications.

In his ruling yesterday, the judge agreed with the Special Master’s January 2018 report finding that the current HSD management team lacks the sufficient “knowledge, skills, and abilities” necessary to ensure families receive information about their cases and get the assistance they need to eat and see the doctor.

The judge also found that the Income Support Division Director demonstrated “woefully” little knowledge of the court ordered changes to improve processing food and Medicaid applications despite the significant impact they had on the division’s mission and work.

The judge was also troubled by the ISD Director’s lack of knowledge of standard memoranda issued by her division, training procedures, and her admitted failure to speak with the Regional Operations Managers on how to address improving timeliness and efficiency.

“We hope the state will make the management changes that will end the need for such extensive oversight through the courts,” said Hager. “New Mexicans who are going through significant hardships shouldn’t have to fight with the state to get the food and medical care they need.”

Center attorneys working on the Deborah Hatten Gonzales v. Brent Earnest lawsuit include Sovereign Hager, Gail Evans, and Maria Griego. Civil rights attorney, Daniel Yohalem is lead counsel on the case.

The court’s ruling can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Doc.-836-Memorandum-Opinion-and-Order-2018-04-05-00000003.pdf

Federal Court to hear Special Master’s findings on illegal barriers to food and medical assistance on Thursday

ALBUQUERQUE, NM — On Thursday, in U.S. District Court in Albuquerque, Judge Kenneth Gonzales will hold a hearing on the court-appointed Special Master’s report regarding the New Mexico Human Services Department’s failure to comply with multiple court orders to timely and accurately provide food and medical assistance to eligible families. The court ordered 20 high-level employees to be present at the hearing.

In September 2016, Judge Gonzales held the HSD Secretary Brent Earnest in contempt for failing to remove barriers to assistance for eligible families and appointed a Special Master to monitor and make recommendations to the department. The Special Master issued a report in January 2018 finding that “the current HSD/ISD management team lacks sufficient knowledge, skills, and abilities to appropriately manage the program or bring it into full compliance with the Consent Decree.” The Special Master recommended that HSD take immediate action, including removing five high-level employees from the division that administers food and medical assistance, appoint qualified experts, and improve worker training.

Despite court orders and the expertise provided by the Special Master, HSD continues to improperly deny eligible New Mexicans food and medical assistance. Each month the department develops a backlog of unprocessed cases, a large share of phone calls are not answered, and workers are not accurately trained on the requirements for processing food and medical assistance applications.

WHAT:  
Court hearing on the Special Master’s Report (Doc. 810) on HSD compliance with court orders in Deborah Hatten Gonzales v. Brent Earnest (No. 88-385 KG/CG) and the objections to the Special Master’s Report (Docs. 812 & 813)

WHEN:
Thursday, March 1, 2018 at 9:00 a.m.

WHERE:
Pete V. Domenici United States Courthouse
440 Hondo Courtroom
333 Lomas Boulevard, N.W.
Albuquerque, NM 87102

WHO:
New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty attorneys
Special Master Lawrence M. Parker and Compliance Specialist Ramona McKissic
HSD Secretary Brent Earnest
HSD Deputy Secretary and General Counsel Christopher Collins
Income Support Division Director Mary Brogdon
19 other HSD staff members were also ordered to attend, including county directors, regional operations managers, a former deputy secretary, and assistant general counsel