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HSD secretary must address major problems

“The (Human Services Department) Cabinet secretary needs to take a serious look at his management team,” said federal court-appointed Special Master Lawrence Parker during a June 30 U.S. District Court hearing in Las Cruces. It was Parker’s first major report in the case surrounding the agency’s mismanagement of New Mexico’s food and medical aid system.

Inadequate staffing and a tangled web of policy and protocol directives have led to a backlog of over 50,000 applicants for food and medical assistance. HSD employees, who are represented by AFSCME, have been instrumental in bringing issues to the forefront. They are challenging management’s approach, which refuses to look at staff shortages and self-caused technical issues.

Employees are petitioning management to end practices that have normalized a “state of emergency” at HSD. Employees are disallowed from taking vacations and retaliated against for using sick leave, and management is pushing disciplinary actions against workers unable to meet wildly unrealistic quotas.

Plaintiff’s attorneys in the lawsuit said the Human Services Department has made “shockingly little progress” in complying with court-ordered changes aimed at improving conditions. In a June memo, plaintiff’s attorneys describe how HSD is understaffed by 160 positions. They’re desperately needed to process, approve or deny a high volume of applications. Though the state says it is committed to filling vacancies, many of the vacant positions are not posted.

The ASPEN (Automated System Program and Eligibility Network) computer system is designed to handle all of New Mexico’s income and medical support applications. Purchased under the (Gov. Susana) Martinez administration, ASPEN is a core HSD woe. Budgeted at $118 million, Deloitte’s gaffe-prone computer system has led to costly inefficiencies and technical failures in New Mexico, Kentucky, Michigan and Rhode Island.

Most recently in New Mexico, the system caused newborn babies not to be added to Medicaid within a required three-day period, leaving them without medical coverage outside hospitals. Adults and children are inexplicably purged from the system and must reapply, wasting more time and causing higher demand on limited human resources.

Martinez has made it her policy to run lean and mean government with fewer employees and resources, and that’s exactly what she has delivered. Today, 1.4 million New Mexicans rely on some food and Medicaid assistance. Undercutting basic services needed to survive is fueling massive problems that affect us all.

We are demanding the state hire enough employees to operate our system and fix technical problems within ASPEN. We must restore a sense of humanity to New Mexico’s welfare system. Children are falling through the cracks because this administration has nickel-and-dimed public welfare operations.

In September 2016, federal Judge Kenneth Gonzales ordered Cabinet Secretary Brent Earnest be held in contempt of court for failing to fix a “false assets” practice and other problems at HSD. High-level managers were falsely inflating people’s income to avoid federal scrutiny and causing people’s applications for emergency food aid to be denied. Three top-level HSD managers pleaded the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination 97 times in federal court when questioned about the practice.

There is an even greater need for HSD to create a global employee operations manual. Currently, the system is hamstrung by a confusing hodgepodge of written and verbal policies that vary from office to office. Finally, staffing shortages and high turnover are dangerous. The state must prioritize a more aggressive recruitment strategy to fill critical vacancies.

Contrary to the gloom being reported by the media, rank-and-file HSD employees feel hope thanks to Parker’s statements and the willingness of the federal court to take action. Despite this administration’s continued attempts to ignore the crisis, we finally have a real and overdue opportunity for change.

Judge Gonzales set a November court date to review the state’s progress and decide if New Mexico’s Income Support Division must be taken over by the federal government.

Connie Derr is the international vice president for the AFSCME Southwestern District.