U.S. District Judge Kenneth Gonzales laid out the stakes in a long-simmering lawsuitover the Human Services Department’s record of denying food stamp and Medicaid benefits to eligible New Mexicans during a status hearing Thursday at the federal courthouse in Las Cruces.
He’d visited the HSD office on Utah Street in Las Cruces where he had looked over cases with a front-line worker there. One client was a single mom with two kids under 6. She’d lost SNAP benefits because she had not submitted documents that apparently were already in the system. Then her family lost Medicaid benefits, even though they weren’t up for renewal, because of the decision on food stamps — something that violates federal rules. Another mom with a teen daughter got benefits approved, but needed to wait more than two weeks for an EBT card.
This story originally appeared at New Mexico In Depth and is reprinted with permission.
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.
Just days after a state senator called for the resignation of New Mexico Human Services Department Secretary Brent Earnest, the two kept things relatively cordial with one another in their first public meeting since then. Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, chair of the interim Legislative Health and Human Services, gave the floor to Earnest during the Monday morning committee hearing by the committee to explain how he is addressing allegations in several court testimonies of a department policy to falsify and delay emergency food benefit applications. “I don’t believe that anything has been said about what you’re doing about that,” Ortiz y Pino told Earnest. Last week, Ortiz y Pino made a statement calling the alleged practice “completely unacceptable.”
“If Secretary Earnest did not know this was happening, he failed to lead the agency,” his statement said. “If he did know, but did nothing, then this is may be a very serious legal matter.”
During the hearing Monday, Earnest explained that since the allegations first surfaced in April, his department launched an internal investigation and issued a written directive to employees telling them to follow federal guidelines.
One state senator says that the Human Services Department secretary should resign in light of explosive allegations that the department encouraged widespread falsification of food stamp applications to deny emergency benefits. “It is completely unacceptable that needy New Mexicans, who were eligible for federal food stamps, have been illegally and willfully denied that help for years by the state HSD,” State Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, said. “If Secretary Earnest did not know this was happening, he failed to lead the agency. If he did know, but did nothing, then this is may be a very serious legal matter.” Brent Earnest, the secretary of HSD, announced an internal investigation into the allegations last month.