SANTA FE — The state agency that helps needy New Mexicans buy groceries and obtain medical care continued last year to illegally deny benefits to some families who qualified for aid, plaintiffs’ attorneys in a class-action lawsuit say.
In about one-third of the cases checked by lawyers, they said, households lost food or medical benefits — or had them delayed — because of errors by the state Human Services Department.
A court-appointed special master also found that some families had their benefits denied or terminated for failing to turn in a document, even though it was already in their case file, according to court records.
The cases examined were from a six-month period last year, between March and September 2018.
The state, in turn, says it has taken action since then to improve the handling of benefits.
David Scrase, cabinet secretary for the Human Services Department, said the new administration — which took office Jan. 1 — is reconfiguring the department’s computer system and making other changes to improve the processing of benefits.
“We’re working very diligently on the problems we’ve inherited,” Scrase said in an interview.
The department also has hired retired state Supreme Court Justice Edward Chávez as special counsel to help guide work to resolve the class-action lawsuit, which was filed in 1988.
Maria Griego, an attorney for the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, an advocacy group representing the plaintiffs, said the review of cases demonstrates that the state remains in violation of court orders, which require removing systemic barriers in the application process for food and medical assistance.
About 31 percent of cases reviewed, Griego said, showed families had a loss or delay in benefits because of a state error.
The “case review shows the eligibility decisions are frequently wrong,” Griego said in a written statement Tuesday.
In a report based on the case review, plaintiffs’ attorneys said they found instances where families received notices saying HSD was still reviewing their paperwork, even though the department actually need more documents from the applicant. The department later denied benefits because the families didn’t submit the needed documents.
In one case, the plaintiffs’ attorneys said, the department informed a family that it had extra time to submit documents but closed the case before the time was up.
“This is confusing and unfair to families who are seeking benefits,” the plaintiffs’ attorneys said in their report to a court-appointed special master.
Scrase, a longtime physician who took over the department this year, said there have been signs of improvement in recent months. The state, he said, now exceeds federal standards for timely processing of applications in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
The department, Scrase said, has made changes since the review of last year’s cases.
But “I would agree that there’s still a lot of work left to do,” he said.
The class-action lawsuit, meanwhile, is in its 31st year. It 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.
A federal judge last year approved a settlement that could end the litigation, but the state must first prove that it’s meeting a series of standards.
A court hearing is scheduled later this week in Las Cruces before U.S. District Judge Kenneth Gonzales to discuss the status of the suit.
A court-appointed special master, Lawrence Parker, identified at least two systemic errors based on the review of cases from last year — “eligibility” problems, such as improper income calculations, and “verification” errors, such as denying benefits to a family for failing to turn in documents that are already in the case file.
The nutrition program — formerly known as food stamps, now called SNAP — is a critical part of New Mexico’s efforts to fight hunger. The federal government sends the state about $650 million a year to provide food assistance for low-income families.
More than 220,000 households in the state receive help.
In written statement last week, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham commended Human Services Department employees for improving how quickly they process SNAP applications.
“I am firmly committed to ensuring that every qualified New Mexican receives their benefits as efficiently as possible,” Lujan Grisham said.