NM to spend $19M in settlement - Albuquerque Journal

NM to spend $19M in settlement

The New Mexico State Capitol (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – The state of New Mexico has agreed to spend about $15.8 million over the next three years to strengthen administration of a program that helps needy families buy groceries – part of a broader settlement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The state Human Services Department also will pay the federal government about $3.6 million, bringing the total cost of the agreement to almost $19.4 million.

The complex settlement resolves a claim by the Department of Agriculture that New Mexico – in parts of 2014 to 2016 – mishandled the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, and overpaid some families.

In an interview Monday, Human Services Secretary David Scrase said the Legislature has already authorized the funding necessary to cover the first year of the settlement.

The funding commitment, he said, shows the U.S. Department of Agriculture that “we’re committed to doing the right thing” to ensure SNAP benefits are administered properly.

“We’ve reestablished a trusting relationship between ourselves and the USDA,” Scrase said.

Federal officials initially sent the state a bill for nearly $164 million. New Mexico disputed that it had overpaid benefits anywhere near that much.

The new settlement resolves the disagreement partly by requiring the state to make a series of investments, including spending of:

• $7.1 million on increasing employee pay to improve staff retention;

• $3.2 million to support call center operations;

• $3.1 million to improve an online user portal;

• $2.4 million on fraud detection, communication improvements and other priorities.

Verenice Peregrino Pompa, a public benefits attorney at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, said the spending required by the settlement is an important step toward improving the state’s administration of SNAP benefits.

But a longer-term plan and continued investment is necessary, she said, to ensure families aren’t waiting for benefits they qualify for.

“New Mexican families need SNAP benefits to make sure no one goes hungry,” Peregrino Pompa said in an interview.

The Center on Law and Poverty has been active in a long-running lawsuit over the administration of SNAP benefits.

The federal government’s allegations center on a 2½ year period ending in the fall of 2016, predating the Lujan Grisham administration by two years.

Federal officials accused New Mexico of certifying applicants as eligible without proper verification, incorrectly keeping applications pending beyond a deadline and improperly paying retroactive benefits.

New Mexico acknowledged liability of about $7 million.

In a written statement released by the state, William Ludwig of the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service said New Mexico’s program “is on a stable path forward.”

“This settlement is in recognition of the substantial progress that HSD has made over the past three years to eliminate past application processing barriers and to put into place durable solutions that will result in long-lasting future improvements to the program,” he said.

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