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.
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.
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.
Two things about New Mexico’s scandal over the state allegedly falsifying applications for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program stand out to Samuel Chu. The first is documentation of the scandal in federal court, which in May included three top state Human Services Department officials refusing to answer a total of nearly 100 questions from lawyers. Instead, they asserted their Fifth Amendment rights, which allow people to avoid possibly incriminating themselves. “We generally don’t see that,” Chu, the national synagogue organizer with Mazon, a California-based anti-hunger organization that tracks food stamp issues across the country. The Fifth Amendment pleadings came after multiple HSD employees told the court of an alleged statewide practice of adding false resources to applications for emergency benefits through SNAP, the federal program formerly known as food stamps.
The state Human Services Department missed a Friday deadline to file an internal report investigating allegations of falsifying food aid applications to deny emergency benefits to the needy with a federal court. Earlier this week, Federal Magistrate Judge Carmen Garza ordered the department’s report unsealed and sent to court by 5pm Friday evening. But HSD attorneys cited technical problems with filing the report on the federal court database where the public can access it online. Related: Incomplete SNAP report finds possible internal falsifications
Instead, HSD attorney Natalie Bruce filed a notice to court Friday evening after 5pm “to let the Court and all interested parties know that I … attempted to timely file the redacted [Office of the Inspector General] report and corresponding exhibits and was unable to accomplish this task.”
While Bruce was unable to file the report online, the attorney noted that she sent all the documents to attorneys for plaintiffs in the Hatten-Gonzales case, who are accusing HSD of improperly processing benefits for Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. She also wrote that the department is sharing the documents “with any interested reporter.”
NM Political Report eventually obtained the internal report at 7:40 pm Friday evening from HSD spokesman Kyler Nerison.
A state official who pleaded her Fifth Amendment rights 39 times in federal court in May is no longer in charge of the Human Services Department’s Income Support Division, which processes federal food aid benefits. HSD Secretary Brent Earnest announced Friday, ahead of a holiday weekend, that Marilyn Martinez will no longer head the department’s Income Support Division. Starting today, Martinez will act as chief of the department’s financial services bureau in the administrative services division. “Marilyn has been a dedicated member of the HSD team for many years, recently serving as ISD Director,” Earnest wrote in an email to employees last Friday, “and I look forward to her contributing her experience and expertise within ASD.”
Martinez appeared on the stand as a witness in an ongoing lawsuit alleging that HSD is mishandling applications for Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. There, Martinez invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and refused to answer 39 questions from an attorney representing the Center on Law and Poverty.
Attorneys for the Center on Law and Poverty are asking a federal court to unseal an internal state investigation into allegations of fraud in processing and falsely denying food benefits applications. In a motion filed today, the Center’s attorneys argued that the public’s “significant interest” in the matter outweighs the state’s arguments to keep the report on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program applications secret. “The Court’s actions in this case are of great public concern, as New Mexico has one of the highests rates of hunger in the United States,” the Center’s attorneys wrote. “The public this has an especially strong interest in having access to documents the Court uses to inform its decision affecting the class of food assistance applicants.”
The state Human Services Department was rocked in recent months after employees said they were instructed to add fake assets to emergency applications for SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, so applicants wouldn’t be eligible for the emergency benefits. Applicants seeking emergency SNAP benefits must face extreme levels of poverty to qualify.
The New Mexico congressional delegation and a high-ranking USDA official want a federal investigation into the state’s handling of food benefit applications. The calls for an investigation from all five members of the delegation and the USDA Undersecretary of Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services comes after a federal court case included allegations of the department changing applications and adding assets so the applicant no longer qualified for emergency food aid benefits. Related: USDA investigating HSD’s alleged food benefits violations
Undersecretary Kevin Concannon cited these allegations against the state Human Services Department, which he referred to as the Department of Human Services, in his letter to the USDA Inspector General and Assistant Inspector General for Investigations. “We have become aware of significant irregularities found in NMDHS’s certification process, and are aware of allegations which, if demonstrated to be true, could represent fraudulent criminal activity on the part of State agency staff,” Concannon wrote. “Specifically, there are allegations of State employees falsifying certification records by adding assets to submitted [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] applications so that applicants don’t qualify for expedited service application processing to which they are entitled.”
The letter signed by all five members of the congressional delegation also mentioned the allegations and asked for an investigation.
An official who pleaded her Fifth Amendment rights in court over widespread allegations of fraud in how the state administers the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program will take charge of a large portion of the state’s corrective action plan to fix many of the program’s problems outlined by the federal government. In May, Marilyn Martinez, the state Human Services Department’s director of the Income Support Division, appeared as a witness in federal court and refused to answer 39 questions from attorneys with the Center on Law and Poverty. Many of these questions centered on Martinez’s role in the alleged institutional practice of adding fake assets to emergency applications to deny benefits to people seeking aid from the program formerly known as food stamps. “Why did you think it was appropriate to be adding assets to case files in order to bar people from being approved for expedited SNAP?” attorney Daniel Yohalem* asked Martinez during her testimony. “I’m invoking my Fifth Amendment right,” Martinez responded.
The federal government placed state Human Services Department on a “detailed corrective action plan,” mandating it correct its many problems with administering the Supplemental Assistance Nutrition Program (SNAP), the food benefits program formerly known as food stamps. In a May 27 letter to HSD Secretary Brent Earnest, U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service Southwest Regional Administrator William Ludwig warned that failure to submit a plan “within 14 days of receipt of this letter” could lead to “further escalation.”
The potential fallout for New Mexico, according to the letter, includes “the possible suspension or disallowance of Federal funding for State administrative expenses.”
“It is imperative that HSD understand the severity and consequences outlined in this letter,” Ludwig wrote. On the surface, Ludwig’s letter faults HSD for giving SNAP benefits to people that it shouldn’t be. He details eight “severe compliance issues” where HSD broke federal regulations in its processing of SNAP applications. They include the department’s practice of keeping pending SNAP applications open for more than the required 60 days, approving applications without interviewing or determining a person’s eligibility for SNAP and failing to keep accurate records of clients.