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Court order sought for food, medical programs

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – The state agency that provides food and medical help to needy New Mexicans has failed to comply with legal requirements and is refusing to share information, attorneys for the plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit say.

In a motion filed this week, the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty – representing the plaintiffs – accused the state Human Services Department of continuing the improper denial of benefits to some families who qualify for help with groceries or medical care.

The state has grown increasingly uncooperative, despite a court-approved corrective action plan, the center’s attorneys say.

They are asking U.S. District Judge Kenneth Gonzales to order the state again to comply with earlier court orders and the corrective action plan. A hearing is scheduled Thursday morning.

David Scrase, New Mexico’s secretary of human services, said he wouldn’t discuss the center’s motion – out of respect for the court. But his agency, he said, will be happy to address any concerns raised by the judge in Thursday’s hearing.

The dispute involves a lawsuit filed in 1988. The state is accused 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.

The latest motion says the state has improperly rejected some applications, citing the applicants’ failure to turn in paperwork that isn’t actually necessary. The plaintiffs also say benefits have been wrongly denied to families that include immigrants.

These “problems have devastating impacts on the lives of New Mexicans, who are individuals and families that need access to food and healthcare, like all us,” plaintiffs’ attorneys Sovereign Hager, Teague Gonzalez and Daniel Yohalem said in the motion.

They said they are seeking a court order, in part, because of the state’s “increasing resistance to cooperation.”

In written statement, Scrase, the cabinet secretary, said his department had just learned of the plaintiffs’ motion.

“There is a defined legal process for the submission of, and responses to, motions to the court that HSD both respects and trusts,” he said Wednesday. “Since we will be appearing in Federal Court in Las Cruces tomorrow, we feel that out of respect to the Court we will not depart from its process by discussing the motion in the media. However, we will be most happy to answer any concerns that Judge Gonzales raises in our status conference tomorrow.”

Scrase and others in the Human Services Department have repeatedly argued that they are making substantial progress fixing problems they inherited.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the type of families that plaintiffs allege were wrongly denied food assistance benefits.

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