Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
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 that qualified for aid, plaintiffs’ attorneys in a class-action lawsuit say.
In about one-third of the cases checked by lawyers, according to the lawsuit, food or medical benefits were lost or delayed because of errors by the state Human Services Department.
A court-appointed special master also found that some families’ benefits were denied or terminated for failure to turn in documents, even though they were already in the families’ case files, according to court records.
The cases examined were from a six-month period last year, from March to September.
The state, in turn, says it’s taken action since then to improve the handling of benefits.
Human Services Secretary David Scrase 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.
In about 31 percent of cases reviewed, Griego said, 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 in which families received notices saying HSD was still reviewing their paperwork, even though the department actually needed 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 told 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 the 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, formerly called the Food Stamp Program.
The state Human Services 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 hearing is scheduled for Thursday in Las Cruces before U.S. District Judge Kenneth Gonzales to discuss the status of the suit.
The 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 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 a 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.