State illegally denies families food and medical assistance because it fails to provide translation and interpretation

Thousands of New Mexicans who qualify for food and medical assistance are illegally denied or delayed access to benefits because the state does not provide translation and interpretation services, charges a motion filed today by the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty on behalf of applicants for food and medical assistance in the lawsuit Deborah Hatten Gonzales v. David Scrase

The motion asks the US District Court of New Mexico to order the New Mexico’s Human Services Department to comply with federal and court ordered requirements to translate food and medical assistance applications, notices, and informational materials into languages prominently spoken in New Mexico’s communities. 

Many New Mexicans speak languages other than English in numbers that require translation of food and medical assistance applications and documents under federal laws, including Vietnamese, Chinese, Dari, Arabic, Swahili, Kinyarwanda, and Diné. However, the state only provides written documents in English and Spanish. 

Advocates and applicants in the lawsuit report experiencing long delays and barriers in accessing food and medical care, which was especially difficult during the pandemic. Some lost food assistance multiple times because the notice about renewing benefits is only in English. Others reported having to pay private interpreters, despite having no income and having to deal with unnecessary in person contact during the public health emergency.

An HSD office turned away Cuc T. Nguyen, a mother of a 13-year-old son, when she tried to apply for Medicaid because applications were in English only and the worker did not provide a Vietnamese interpreter. HSD staff illegally told her to come back with her own interpreter although by federal law HSD is required to provide applications in Vietnamese and access to an interpreter. 

Community-based organizations that work directly with New Mexicans that speak languages other than English or Spanish, like the New Mexico Asian Family Center and the Refugee Well-being Project, report having to divert limited resources to provide translation and interpretation services that are the state’s responsibility under federal law. 

To help families who could not apply for or renew benefits on their own due to language barriers, the New Mexico Asian Family Center has taken on additional clients and diverted resources meant to assist survivors of domestic violence during the pandemic. 

“Everyone who qualifies should be able to access state services regardless of the language they speak,” said AnhDao Bui of the New Mexico Asian Families Center. “Excluding some people because they don’t speak English exacerbates health and economic disparities. This kind of discrimination is not new. Lack of translation is part of a systemic problem that ignores the existence of Asians in New Mexico.” 

HSD’s continued discrimination violates families’ civil rights and illegally forces New Mexicans to go without food and medical care. The motion charges that despite repeated attempts since 2009 to bring these issues to the New Mexico Human Service Department’s attention, in April 2021, HSD refused again to take further action to comply. 

“It’s unacceptable that HSD continues to discriminate against people by failing to translate documents with full knowledge that families are being harmed as a consequence,” said Verenice Peregrino Pompa, attorney with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. “Now more than ever, HSD should be working with community members and plaintiffs in this case to resolve ongoing barriers to food and healthcare.” 

The long-running Hatten-Gonzales lawsuit was originally filed in 1989. In 2016, the court held former HSD Secretary Brent Earnest in contempt for failing to remove systemic barriers to assistance for eligible families applying for food and Medicaid assistance and appointed a Special Master to monitor and make recommendations to the department. While HSD has made some progress, the court recently ordered HSD to implement a corrective action plan. 

The motion can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/Doc.-1011_Motion-to-Enforce-Translation-and-Interpretation-2021-10-05.pdf

The exhibits can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/Doc.-1011_-Exhibits-to-Motion-to-Enforce-2021-10-05.pdf

The September 2021 order for HSD to implement a corrective action plan can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/Doc.-1009-Order-Re-Case-Review-CAP-2021-09-09.pdf

Court asked to order HSD to implement plan to remove barriers to food and medical assistance  

HSD and Center on Law and Poverty jointly drafted the court approved corrective action plan the department now refuses to adopt  

LAS CRUCES—Families continue to go without food and medical assistance they are eligible for because the New Mexico Human Services Department has failed to implement major elements of a corrective action plan the department itself helped draft and the court approved and mandated. In a motion filed yesterday evening on behalf of plaintiffs in the lawsuit Deborah Hatten Gonzales v. David Scrase, the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty asked a U.S. District Court to order HSD to comply with the plan, set deadlines, share information, and meet with plaintiffs.

“No family should have to go hungry or be without health coverage, but that’s exactly what’s happening in New Mexico,” said Teague Gonzalez, supervising attorney at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. “We were encouraged by the plan we developed with HSD, but the department has stopped cooperating and is refusing to set deadlines and fix long standing problems. HSD needs to implement the plan they agreed to immediately.”

While HSD has made some progress, serious failures continue. In the motion, the Center charges that HSD has refused to implement a corrective action plan and court ordered changes including: 

  • Improving its notoriously faulty IT system so families with immigrant members are not illegally denied benefits or required to provide documents that are not necessary to get benefits for eligible family members; 
  • Fixing the language in form notices so they explain how families can prove their eligibility to maintain their food and medical assistance and clearly understand why they are denied benefits; and
  • Implementing basic eligibility content into a worker manual, improve regulations and worker training. 

The court mandated a review of HSD case files that was completed in February 2019. In this audit, the Center found tremendous errors in 67 percent of all cases involving immigrant families. Of these, 60 percent resulted in a delay of one month or more receiving assistance.

In 2016, the court held former HSD Secretary Brent Earnest in contempt for failing to remove systemic barriers to assistance for eligible families applying for food and Medicaid assistance and appointed a Special Master to monitor and make recommendations to the department.

Judge Kenneth Gonzales set a series of deadlines in April 2018 for HSD compliance with court ordered reforms. Under new HSD Secretary David Scrase, plaintiffs and HSD jointly drafted, and agreed upon, a corrective action plan that the court approved in July 2019. However, HSD hired a new acting general counsel in August 2019 and collaboration has halted.

The long-running Hatten-Gonzales lawsuit was originally filed in 1989. While some progress has been made, HSD has never satisfactorily 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.

There will be a status conference on the state’s compliance with the multiple court orders to remove barriers to food and medical assistance for eligible families tomorrow at 10:00 a.m. in U.S. District Court in Las Cruces before Judge Kenneth Gonzales.

The court motion can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/hatten-gonzales-v-earnest-motion-to-enforce-judgment-2019-11-19/

The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty report on its case review can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/nmclp-report-on-hsd-case-review-2019-02-25-redacted/

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/