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Human Services Department workers testify data from SNAP applicants was doctored

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Human Services Department caseworkers and supervisors from Taos, Portales and Las Cruces testified Thursday they’d been instructed to inflate the reported resources of needy clients seeking food assistance so the department wouldn’t look bad in case reviews.

Lawyers challenging whether HSD is meeting the requirements of a consent decree – and who believe part of HSD should be placed in receivership if there’s any hope of eventual compliance – called the witnesses late Thursday in U.S. District Court at a daylong hearing before Magistrate Judge Carmen Garza to decide if the department is in contempt of court.

The Center for Law and Poverty contends the state continues to illegally deny and close food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, and Medicaid eligibility. By falsely inflating income, HSD workers would make the applicant ineligible for “expedited” help.

HSD takes a very different view, and Cabinet Secretary Brent Earnest testified that he and the department’s 900 employees are dealing with a large, complex system that has undergone historic changes.

He said workers made mistakes but never willfully disobeyed court orders. Questioned by department attorney Christopher Collins, he said he had “significant concern all this litigation is not productive.”

To have the department placed in receivership would be an extraordinary remedy that amounts to the courts taking authority for the excutive branch, Earnest said.

But he acknowledged during cross-examination by the center’s legal director, Gail Evans, that a court order required compliance well over a year ago, and the target date keeps moving.

Center attorney Sovereign Hager questioned five workers in the Income Support Division who said they’d been directed that if they were going to be unable to meet the seven-day deadline for emergency food assistance, they were to pass the file along to a supervisor.

The supervisor would modify the file in a way that gave the division 30 days to process the case, and would avoid having bad numbers in the case of a federal or state audit.

A 10-year employee from Taos testified about a case that she referred to a supervisor, who added $400 in phantom assets to the applicant’s resources – money that wasn’t recorded in the original notes that she kept. She challenged the decision, and she kept the original case notes “because this happened before.”

A worker in Portales, and a supervisor there, said the same thing had happened after the regional director told them in a meeting that the unwritten practice or policy went on statewide.

“We’re cheating the citizens of New Mexico,” the Portales caseworker said.

All of the workers who testified said they feared retaliation because of their testimony.

The reported problems were not only in SNAP. An enrollment counselor for Medicaid said she had experienced problems enrolling immigrants, even though they are entitled to benefits.

“In light of this record of persistent noncompliance, it is essential that this court issue an order that changes the way the defendant has been implementing its Medicaid and SNAP programs,” the Center for Law and Poverty says in urging receivership.

U.S. District Judge Kenneth Gonzales assigned the case to Garza a year ago to take evidence and make recommendations for the disposition of the case, first filed in 1988.