Lines of needy people sometimes snaking outside the doors of state Income Support Division offices should become a thing of the past, at least in theory, under sweeping changes ordered Thursday by a federal judge.
The state’s lawyers acknowledged a backlog – though no one could say exactly how big – of people who have applied for health care or food assistance only to be denied outright or told to come back later.
Meanwhile, the state Human Services Department is under a consent decree entered in 1998 involving processing of those aid applications. Advocacy lawyers said HSD was illegally stalling and actually preventing eligible individuals from getting assistance.
At a two-hour emergency hearing requested by the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, which represents needy families seeking assistance, U.S. District Judge Kenneth Gonzales agreed that “HSD is failing to comply with the decree.” Gonzales granted a series of requests from the organization involving assistance provided through the federally funded SNAP and Medicaid programs. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, and Medicaid are administered by HSD.
HSD lawyers said they were addressing the problem and eliminating the backlog and asked for a three-month delay before the court took any enforcement action.
The new HSD general counsel, Christopher Collins, said the state faced “a perfect storm” of complications from Obamacare implementation, expansion of the Medicaid program, a new computer system at HSD and an increase in the number of applicants because of the economy.
Gail Evans, an attorney with the Center on Law and Poverty, gave examples such as a single mother with a year-old daughter who tried to apply in February for emergency assistance intended for people who have no other way to buy food. Although by law she should have been screened and given a decision immediately – with aid delivered within seven days – the mother was told to go home and apply online.
“She’s exactly who the program was designed for,” Evans said. “She didn’t get help. There was no word (from HSD) as of today.”
Answering a question from the judge, Evans said her client, like others in her situation, turned to a food pantry to feed her child.
Benefits for a family of five in Anthony were terminated by mistake after the family was asked to recertify its eligibility, even though its circumstances hadn’t changed, Evans told the court. Employees of the Income Support Division told the mother of four the office was overwhelmed and that she’d have to wait. Meanwhile, that family, too, is relying on a food pantry.
Evans said another HSD practice was to automatically deny a pending application if employees had not been able to get to it by the end of the month. That won kudos from federal authorities in terms of timeliness, she said, but gave a false picture of the reality.
“We have clients who’re poor, who ride buses across town with a kid, stand in line (at an office) and are told to come back tomorrow. There’s considerable evidence of procedural denial (of assistance),” she said.
Gonzales, saying said he had enough evidence to make a ruling, noted Collins and assistant general counsel Natalie Bruce had conceded serious problems, while contesting the Center on Law and Poverty’s assessment of the extent of the problems and remedies in place to fix them.
Along with ordering specific procedural changes, Gonzales said the parties need to meet monthly, and HSD must provide data to Center on Law attorneys.
He also admonished HSD attorneys for the tone of court filings not written by Collins or Bruce, saying “plaintiffs should upgrade their material” and get away from the “tired trope that has been spun by the Center on Law and Poverty, ad nauseum, for years.” He ordered the attorney who wrote the document to be present at the next hearing.