May 18, 2017

Medicaid renewal delays balloon as HSD gets control of SNAP backlog

Photo Credit: Paul Sableman cc

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.

As of February, more than 30,000 SNAP renewals were overdue, according to state numbers cited in the April court filing. But that number dropped to just under 2,500 SNAP renewals as of May 10, Griego said.

The more recent backlog numbers come from updates in a lawsuit between the Center on Law and Poverty and HSD.

Griego attributed the sharp drop in overdue SNAP renewal cases to a corrective action plan for processing these cases that HSD is under from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Services since last September.

Katie Cornell-Poulter is among the SNAP recipients whose benefits were delayed during a recent renewal period. Last fall, Cornell-Poulter was supposed to start receiving a new round of benefits by Nov. 6. Instead, the new benefits didn’t come in until the day before Thanksgiving, or two-and-a-half weeks.

For Cornell-Poulter, the waiting came at a difficult time. A single mother and full-time student studying social work at New Mexico Highlands University, Cornell-Poulter said she relies on loans and a minimum wage work study position to get by.

During the weeks her Medicaid renewal application was delayed, Cornell-Poulter said she had trouble getting in contact with a caseworker at HSD to discuss the issue. In the meantime, Thanksgiving was coming up and she worried everyone at HSD would be gone for a few days once the holiday came.

“It was getting really close, and I was like, ‘OK, I’m not going to have food on my table,” she said.

When she did get a hold of someone, Cornell-Poulter said the caseworker told her that they were sharing case workloads with another county office. To Cornell-Poulter, this was an indication that HSD wasn’t properly staffed to handle their caseloads.

As NM Political Report previously reported, the state currently lists 431 job vacancies within HSD. Griego also pinned the backlog problems on resources HSD is currently putting toward instituting new co-pays for Medicaid recipients and instituting work requirements for those who receive SNAP benefits. Both of these reforms, she said, “are going to cost them a lot of money.”

“They have to revise notices and train employees and do all the things required to create a new process,” Griego said.

HSD spokesman Kyler Nerison did not return repeated requests to comment for this article throughout the week. Nerison, the department’s director of communications, typically does not respond to requests for comment on stories by NM Political Report.

In the April court filing, HSD responded to the overdue Medicaid renewal application problems by reporting “continued work on the Medicaid renewal process.” The state agency added that “federal agencies will be reviewing the process.”

HSD’s litany of problems processing federal benefits like Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) date back decades—to at least 1988. That year, a lawsuit known as Deborah Hatten-Gonzales v. Human Services Department accused the state of mishandling both federal benefits programs.

The lawsuit resulted in a 1990 consent decree, which provided guidelines the state was to follow on processing Medicaid and what are now SNAP benefits to come into compliance with federal law.

Yet last spring, the Center on Law and Poverty, which now represents the lawsuit’s plaintiffs, accused HSD of not following the consent decree.

As part of the lawsuit, nine HSD employees testified in federal court last summer with explosive allegations that they had been ordered by department heads to falsify emergency SNAP cases in order to clear a backlog of late applications. Perhaps even more dramatically, three top HSD administrators pleaded their Fifth Amendment rights and refused to answer questions about the allegations in court. Those who testify can assert their Fifth Amendment rights to stop from incriminating themselves in illegal activity.

By the fall, a federal judge held HSD Secretary Brent Earnest in contempt of court for the department’s failure to follow the 1990 consent decree.

The judge then appointed former Texas administrator Lawrence M. Parker to serve as an independent special master to guide HSD into federal compliance with processing federal benefits during this calendar year.