Tens of thousands of New Mexicans are put at risk because of the state’s continued failure to adequately provide health care and food benefits to the poor, according to a legal motion filed by a group seeking to protect low-income residents.
Later this month, the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty will argue that a federal court should appoint an independent monitor to oversee some of these key tasks from the New Mexico Human Services Department.
It all stems back to a decades-old federal consent decree that advocates say the state is still struggling to meet.
Issued in 1990, the consent decree came as a result of a class action lawsuit that accused HSD of failing to provide food stamps and Medicaid benefits to recipients.
“The state wasn’t processing [food stamp and Medicaid] applications on time. People weren’t getting their benefits,” Sovereign Hager, a staff attorney with the Center on Law and Poverty, said in an interview. “The state agreed and it resulted in this order.”
But under the leadership of multiple New Mexico governors, HSD has still never been under full compliance of the consent decree.
The call for a monitor comes over the handling of specific sections of the consent decree.
Hager says things really came to a head in 2013, when HSD switched to a new IT system. The change led to the automatic denial of federal food assistance benefits, officially known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, to between 10,000 and 30,000 applicants.
“Federal law requires the state to look on the last day, make a decision and give notice of who’s at fault for the application not being processed in time,” Hager said.
Instead, HSD automatically denied these unprocessed cases in the fall of 2013, Hager says. The Center on Law and Poverty filed a motion accusing this practice of being illegal.
As a result, a federal court ordered HSD to stop “all procedural denials and closures” on SNAP applications.
As part of an agreement, HSD then allowed the Center on Law and Poverty to review two random samples of cases the department marked as “ready to deny or close,” according to the Center’s recent legal filing.
To its “shock,” the Center on Law and Poverty said in a legal filing it found only more problems with the state’s handling of federal benefits for low-income residents, including a backlog of 129,000 SNAP and Medicaid cases.
Since 2013, the Center on Law and Poverty has filed five court motions to try to get HSD to comply with the consent decree. Now, the organization is asking for the federal monitor.
HSD, according to the legal filing, is not properly delivering delay notices, conducting SNAP interviews on time, or issuing proper renewal notices. The legal advocacy group also faults the state department for using an outdated phone system and requiring “excessive Medicaid verification” requirements for applicants.
The Center on Law and Poverty wants the court to appoint a mediator to oversee these parts of HSD until it comes into full compliance with the consent decree.
An HSD spokesman didn’t return an email and voicemail message left Monday seeking comment for this story. But in a response to the Center on Law and Poverty’s legal filing earlier this month, HSD counsel calls the request to appoint a monitor an “extraordinary remedy” and says the advocacy group has not proved the department failed to take “all reasonable steps” to comply with court orders.
HSD instead contends it’s in “substantial compliance” with the consent decree. The department also criticizes the Center on Law and Poverty for not being “cooperative” or “constructive” with the process.
HSD blames its problems to meet federal requirements on “the complexity involved in compliance” with the consent decree. The department maintains that the “real confines” are working with outside companies it contracts with “to program necessary IT changes.”
“The changes being made are very complex, HSD’s task is large, and the recognition that to effectuate change requires time reflects reality,” HSD’s legal response reads.
The department also blames its failures on “new requests made by Plaintiffs.”
Hager, for her part, denies that requesting a monitor to oversee HSD compliance with federal law is extreme.
“We don’t want the state to pay fines or do anything punitive,” Hager said. “They need the leadership and the expertise to get things done.”