Judge sets deadlines for Human Services reforms

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – In a rather blunt opinion, a federal judge on Thursday outlined “a lack of accountability” in the state agency that provides food and medical help to the neediest New Mexicans.

And he said he was “troubled by the woefully inadequate testimony” by a key manager in the department at a court hearing last month.

Nonetheless, U.S. District Judge Kenneth Gonzales held off on ordering the removal of five administrators in the state Human Services Department, as recommended by a court-appointed special master.

Instead, Gonzales imposed a series of deadlines for tasks aimed at improving the department’s work, including the appointment of three experts in immigration, food assistance and Medicaid.

The 28-page opinion is part of a class-action lawsuit, filed in 1988, that accuses New Mexico of violating people’s rights by imposing inconsistent and excessive requirements on applicants seeking benefits, delaying eligibility decisions and failing to provide emergency food assistance in time.

Gonzales made it clear that he’s encouraged that the Human Services Department has made some progress, and he acknowledged that the current management team undoubtedly inherited problems.

But he starkly described shortcomings in some of the department’s recent work, particularly its handling of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Gonzales said the department had failed to discipline two managers who had “instructed staff to fraudulently” change income information on SNAP applications in order to deny benefits. One person was actually promoted, he said. Both were moved to different divisions, in any case.

And as of April last year, Gonzales said, managers had a policy of lying to food applicants about when interviews could be scheduled.

He was especially blunt in assessing the director of the Income Support Division, Mary Brogdon, a key manager in the department.

“Aside from these instances that show a lack of accountability,” Gonzales wrote, “the Court is troubled by the woefully inadequate testimony given by the ISD Director.”

Gonzales didn’t identify her by name, but Brogdon took the stand at last month’s court hearing as director of the Income Support Division.

Her testimony showed that she hadn’t read the entire 1998 consent decree that applies to the work of her division, Gonzales said, and she had visited only a fraction of county-level offices. She began work in June.

The judge, nonetheless, said he wouldn’t order a management shake-up “for now.” He said Brent Earnest, secretary of the Human Services Department, has enough information to make “appropriate personnel decisions.”

The judge said Earnest has a proficient grasp of the case and the technical details involved.

But Gonzales also said “there are reasons for the Court to lack total confidence in the current middle-tier management.”

He imposed a series of deadlines for training of employees, the appointment of experts and a series of other tasks.

Mary Elizabeth Robertson, a spokeswoman for the Human Services Department, said the state provides “timely services” to more than 1 million New Mexicans in need each year. Monthly statistics tracking the department’s performance are improving, she said, and SNAP benefits are being processed “timely” at a rate of 98 percent.

“While we disagree with some of the Court’s statements, ultimately, we are pleased the Court modified and adopted recommendations that are in line with our efforts to bring this 30-year-old litigation to a close,” Robertson said. “The facts are HSD provides benefits timely to eligible individuals in need of assistance.”

Sovereign Hager, an attorney for the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, said the appointment of experts is a “critical step for sustained improvement” and that she hopes the judge’s ruling will result in needed changes to the department’s leadership.

“No family or child in New Mexico should ever have to go without food or medical care,” Hager said. “Unfortunately, too many New Mexicans still don’t have enough to eat or can’t see the doctor because HSD still fails to process benefit applications in a timely manner.”

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