Proposed, sweeping and dramatic changes to a decades-old federal food aid program could have major negative impacts on many impoverished New Mexicans who rely on the program. Donald Trump’s administration proposed changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), previously known as food stamps, in his most recent budget recommendation. The proposal included providing food boxes to those who qualify for the program while slashing the amount of money the federal government spends by 30 percent over ten years. All of this would likely result in fewer people receiving fewer benefits through the program. While the state splits the administrative costs of the program with the federal government, the federal government provides funding for the SNAP benefits New Mexicans receive.
The Trump administration announced Thursday it would allow states to impose work requirements on “able-bodied” adults who receive Medicaid. In New Mexico, it’s not clear if the Martinez administration will pursue such requirements, but if so, it would likely take months to go through the process. “Medicaid needs to be more flexible so that states can best address the needs of this population,” Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Administrator Seema Verma said in a statement. That center is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “Our fundamental goal is to make a positive and lasting difference in the health and wellness of our beneficiaries, and today’s announcement is a step in that direction.”
States would need to do so through a specific waiver with CMS.
New Mexico has been stopped from imposing such requirements in other programs. In 2016, a federal judge stopped the state from requiring people to work who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits because of a long-running federal lawsuit over the state’s inability to process aid.
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.[perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]No ads. No clickbait.
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. [perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]No ads. No clickbait. Just news. [/perfectpullquote]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.
Debbie Pace says she cries when she goes to the Smith’s grocery store because she “can’t afford anything.” Pace, 59, of Albuquerque, says she receives just over $730 a month in Supplemental Security Income from the federal program for the disabled and others with little income. She also receives $33 in monthly food stamps. The $33 in food stamps goes quick, she says. So, she goes to a local church for free food.
Five Democratic state senators banded together Tuesday to block a Republican bill aimed at prohibiting people on food stamps from buying soda pop, candy and other junk foods. The Democrats said they appreciated Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, sponsoring the bill to encourage healthy eating habits in hopes of reducing New Mexico’s high rates of obesity and diabetes. But Democrats on the Senate Public Affairs Committee still found flaws in Pirtle’s proposal. “I’m bothered by this because it’s going after our lowest-income folks,” said Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque. “I don’t support this at all because it focuses on one group of people and implies they’re wasting taxpayers’ money.”
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 appointed a Texas government official to serve as the “special master” to help a New Mexico state agency come into compliance with federal law. Lawrence M. Parker, who has worked for the Texas Health and Human Services Department, will be responsible for essentially fixing the New Mexico Human Service Department’s food aid and Medicaid case processing. The appointment comes as part of a decades-old lawsuit that alleged HSD wasn’t properly processing federal aid to New Mexicans. While that lawsuit, known as Hatten-Gonzales, resulted in a consent decree in 1990, an Albuquerque-based nonprofit argued in court this year that the state wasn’t properly following guidelines laid out under the consent decree. The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty also argued for the federal court to appoint an independent monitor to oversee the state department’s Income Support Division, which processes Medicaid and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.
The state and federal government have “ramped up their investigations” of the New Mexico’s alleged widespread falsification of food aid applications, according to the union that represents the state’s case processors in the Human Services Department. And the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME, Council 18 question whether investigators are targeting “frontline workers” more than the administrators at HSD for responsibility in the scandal. An online post from AFSCME also claims that the investigation is criminal and advises all union members to “contact your union representative before participating in any interview.”
“We understand the importance of getting to the bottom of this swamp,” the AFSCME post reads. “It will be unacceptable should frontline workers be scapegoated of held responsible for wrong-doing [sic] that federal court proceedings revealed was directed from top levels of state government.”
Reached by phone, representatives from AFSCME declined to comment on the matter further. A spokesman from HSD also didn’t return requests to comment Tuesday afternoon.
A month after five state of New Mexico employees testified in federal court that they were instructed to falsify emergency food aid applications, another lawsuit filed in Las Cruces district court made strikingly similar allegations. But instead of directing her allegations toward state government, Lorraine McCullough directed her allegations toward SL Start and Associates, a private, Washington state-based company that bills itself as a health provider for adults and children with developmental disabilities. That’s because this company is contracted with the state Human Services Department to manage the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program (TANF). TANF is the program most commonly called welfare. Locally, the program is called New Mexico Works.