LAS CRUCES—A year-old scandal involving alleged systemic fraud with the state’s management of federal food aid benefits was the elephant in the federal courtroom Thursday. Both Kenneth Gonzales, a federal district judge, and Lawrence Parker, a court-appointed “special master” who is tasked with guiding the New Mexico Human Service Department (HSD) in its federal compliance with Medicaid and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, alluded to the scandal at the hearing. “What nobody wants to see, and you especially, is a culture that allows this to happen,” Gonzales told HSD Secretary Brent Earnest. Parker emphasized that “many of those same people” who were alleged in 2016 to have instructed HSD employees to falsify SNAP applications to meet federal quotas “are still in place” at the department.Parker raised the question of why the department’s management has largely remained the same since the shocking allegations of fraud came to light last year. More than once, Parker recommended a staff shakeup.
More than one year after three top state officials refused to answer questions in federal court about fraud allegations and nine months after a federal judge held their cabinet secretary in contempt of court, the state Human Services Department (HSD) appears to still be seriously mishandling how it processes federal benefits to New Mexico’s poor. This includes an apparent department directive instructing caseworkers to limit interviews with those enrolled in and seeking federal benefits and lie to their superiors about it. Now, the advocacy organization representing plaintiffs in a decades-long lawsuit against HSD is asking a judge to impose monetary sanctions on HSD and its secretary, Brent Earnest. The call for sanctions comes over the department’s alleged failures to meet federal guidelines on processing Medicaid and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. Update: Special master: HSD staff shakeup needed to address SNAP problems
Medicaid is the federal health care program for the poor while SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, provides federal food aid to the poor.
Tens of thousands of Medicaid recipients in New Mexico are not receiving their health benefits on time, according to numbers from state government. As of February of this year, more than 48,000 Medicaid cases up for renewal are not being processed by the state Human Services Department (HSD) on time, according to a federal court filing in April citing HSD’s own numbers. And that number of Medicaid renewal delays has only grown to more than 59,000 as of May 10, according to Maria Griego, a staff attorney with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. “They’re pretty bad,” Griego said of the delays. While the number of New Mexicans who haven’t received their Medicaid benefits on time has been expanding, HSD erased a large part of the backlog of renewal applications for the federal Supplemental Assistance Nutrition Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps.
Lawrence Martinez says driving triggers him back to the dark days of dependency. “Monday was my first day driving the car,” the Albuquerque father of four said last week, talking about the car he and his wife recently bought, as he sat in a conference room at Albuquerque’s Turning Point Recovery Center. “That was an issue on its own, but it’s working out now. Leaving the house, I get anxiety. Once I get on the road, it’s perfect.”
Martinez has been recovering from a methamphetamine addiction since last July.
Despite uncertainty about future federal Medicaid funds, more and more low-income New Mexicans are expected to receive health care under the government insurance program, Health and Human Services Cabinet Secretary Brent Earnest told state lawmakers Wednesday. By the end of the current fiscal year on June 30, Medicaid is expected to cover about 44 percent of the state’s population, or 922,000 residents, including 388,000 enrolled children. The program is now the second largest item in the state general fund after public education and will need some $940 million of state money in the next fiscal year to go along with the federal matching funds that pay most of the cost. Medicaid’s growth comes as New Mexico, which has high poverty rates, struggles to recover from an economic recession that continues to hamper government revenues. But Earnest said cost cutting such as reduced reimbursements to providers as well as taking a larger share of health-care money from county governments should sustain any cost increases in the coming year without bringing in revenue from other sources such as a tax on hospital services.
When state Human Services Secretary Brent Earnest goes before lawmakers to speak about his budget for the Medicaid insurance program, many want to run for cover. One year, he needed as much as $100 million from the general fund to fully pay for all the new enrollees under the federal Affordable Care Act and provide the same level of service. Last fall, he said he needed another $80 million for the fiscal year that begins July 1. On Thursday, he told the House Appropriations and Finance Committee that request had dropped to $42 million. “This is a significantly better picture than you saw in the fall,” Earnest said.
In April, five employees of the state agency that processes key federal benefits to the poor made explosive testimonies in court—that their bosses instructed them to doctor emergency food aid applications to hurt the very people they’re supposed to help. The following month, four more Human Services Department employees added their voices to the allegations. Then, three top state officials were called to the stand and pleaded the Fifth, refusing to answer nearly 100 total questions about their role in the scandal. Previously: Top ten stories of 2016: 10-6; #5: NM Dems buck national trend, retake House; #4: Demesia Padilla resigns; #3: AG clears final behavioral health providers; #2: State budget situation worsens
“In my opinion, we’re cheating those families,” Angela Dominguez, one of the HSD employees, said in her court testimony. The underlying question next became, why?
A federal judge ordered New Mexico Human Services Department Secretary Brent Earnest held in contempt of court for failing to comply with orders in a long-running food aid case. The order from U.S. District Court Judge Kenneth Gonzales came down on Tuesday afternoon. The contempt order came in civil court. “It’s extremely rare for department officials to be held in contempt by federal court,” Sovereign Hager of the Center on Law and Poverty explained. “It’s a very bad and serious thing, especially for low income people who need these programs to live.
A federal judge has ordered an independent “special master” to oversee the division within a state department that deals with food and medical assistance for the poor. On Tuesday, federal judge Kenneth Gonzales formally accepted a July proposal from federal magistrate judge Carmen Garza to appoint a special master. The special master will oversee the processing of Medicaid and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits at the embattled state Human Services Department. Gonzales also gave the special master the power to hire consultants who “will have the same access the staff, records, persons, facilities or sites of services that … the special master determines is necessary.”
This special master will be tasked with bringing HSD’s benefits processing practices into compliance with federal law. Only the federal court will have decisionmaking power over the special master, who is yet to be determined.
After receiving federal food aid benefits for nearly a year to help feed themselves and their now four-month-old infant, Amphai Kelley and Somkid Krotha benefits from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, recently expired. That’s not necessarily their problem. New Mexico’s Human Services Department also wants the couple to pay back more than $2,000 in food aid awarded to the couple since last fall. The state now says they shouldn’t have received the food aid in the first place. Kelley and Krotha question whether they can afford a repayment.