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.

Editorial: Shortchanging the Poor

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.

Advocate Training by Leading Public Benefits Expert in Albuquerque on February 15

Legal service advocates are invited to join the NM Center on Law and Poverty for a training by leading public benefits law expert David Super.

The training will take place on February 15, 2016, from 9am to 1 pm at the NM Center on Law and Poverty at 924 Park Ave, Suite C Albuquerque, NM 87102.

Professor SuperDavid Super, professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center, is a leading expert on public benefits law, especially the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). His current research focuses on constitutional law, legislation (including the federal budget), local government law, and public welfare law. He teaches these subjects as well as civil procedure, contracts, evidence, property, torts, and administrative law. Before entering academia, he was the general counsel for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and worked for the National Health Law Program and Community Legal Services in Philadelphia. And, before attending Harvard Law School, he was a community organizer. (Sound familiar?) Peter Edelman once described David as having “a burning commitment to social justice … (and) a profound intellectual depth” (Abrar Qadir, New Professor, Poverty Law Expert, a “Super” Addition, Georgetown Law Weekly, Oct. 18, 2011). A frequent Clearinghouse Review contributor and constant source of advice and support for the editorial team, David wrote two articles for the Review’s 2012 special issue on hunger and food insecurity: Preventing Terminations of SNAP When States Fail to Recertify Households on Time and Protecting Households as States Stagger SNAP Issuance. Find the articles on the Clearinghouse Review.

The 15th is Presidents’ Day and we know many offices will be closed. This is the only date that worked with Professor Super’s schedule, as he is traveling in the area. We hope that at least some of you can join us for this opportunity and chance to connect on our public benefits work!

Please RSVP to Veronica Rosales at veronica@nmpovertylaw.org if you will attend.

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/