Not all people who apply for food aid in New Mexico qualify, but that hasn’t always stopped the state Human Services Department from sometimes giving them benefits.
The state then sometimes attempted to get the recipients to repay the benefits from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. Oftentimes, collections came weeks or even months after the state disbursed the food aid.
But last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which manages SNAP, told the state not so fast on those collection plans.
Now, after a back-and-forth with the federal government, the state will stop trying to collect these types of SNAP overpayments.
This is according to a July 25 letter by HSD Secretary Brent Earnest to the U.S Department of Agriculture.
In the letter, Earnest wrote his department will not seek collections from people if they found “claims” against the recipients during “a three-month certification period.”
That “three-month certification period” refers an HSD practice of awarding some people SNAP benefits before determining their actual eligibility for the program.
It’s a practice that violates federal law. USDA Southwest Regional Administrator William Ludwig emphasized this point in a letter to Earnest in June.
But Earnest stated HSD began the three month practice to comply with a 2014 federal court order in a decades-old lawsuit accusing his agency of mishandling SNAP benefit applications.
The court ruling barred HSD from rejecting SNAP applications for procedural reasons. Those procedural reasons include, for example, someone forgetting to fill out part of the application for SNAP benefits.
Earnest has denied that the state based overpayments solely on the “three-month certification process” and instead said they only came after the client provided HSD updated information showing they’re not qualified for SNAP.
Both Ludwig and attorneys at the Center on Law and Poverty disagree with Earnest’s on this.
Ludwig, for example, previously wrote that “in many of the claims [USDA Food and Nutrition Services] reviewed, it is clear that a claim would not have been established had HSD been in compliance with Federal program requirements.”
Louise Pocock, an attorney at the Center on Law and Poverty, said she has a client who gave pay stubs to HSD that alone show she made too much money to qualify for SNAP. Instead of denying the client’s application, HSD gave her three months of benefits and asked for more information.
Now HSD is trying to collect overpayments from this client, Pocock said.
“We have at least one example where what the department is saying is not true,” she said.
She also took issue with Earnest tracing the reason for giving people three months of food stamps before vetting their SNAP eligibility to the federal court order. Pocock said the practice is happening to more than just clients whose cases would have otherwise been closed for procedural reasons.
“They’re doing it as standard practice,” she said.
An HSD spokesman didn’t return multiple voicemails and emails from NM Political Report this week seeking comment.
In July, Ludwig told Earnest to stop collecting SNAP overpayments from cases resulting from “HSD’s practices that are in violation of Federal program requirements.”
In his reply, Earnest wrote that he “has concerns” with the broad wording Ludwig’s request. But Earnest clarifies that his department will stop seeking collections from any claims found on a three-month SNAP certification period.
“Upon review of the claim by a supervisor, the supervisor will determine if the claim overlaps with a three-month certification process,” Earnest wrote. “If the claim does overlap, the supervisor will send a request to delete the claim to HSD’s Restitutions Bureau.”
Read Earnest’s latest letter to UDSA below: