U.S. District Judge Kenneth Gonzales appointed a special master Tuesday as a full-time expert to oversee the state Human Services Department’s compliance with food assistance and Medicaid eligibility determination processes.
Gonzales’ six-page order defines the duties and the authority of the yet-to-be-named special master, who will be independent of both HSD Secretary Brent Earnest and attorneys at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, who brought the lawsuit over state compliance with the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.
Center attorneys Gail Evans and Sovereign Hager sought to have the court place the SNAP program in a receivership, arguing that the department’s consistent failure to comply with terms of a consent decree in the 1988 lawsuit meant the department secretary should be sanctioned and that a neutral authority should administer the program.
After a series of evidentiary hearings conducted by U.S. Magistrate Judge Carmen Garza about problems with the program – including testimony that intake workers had been ordered to falsify income for some applicants – the department agreed to a special master. It has continued to oppose a receivership and a contempt finding for the secretary, however. Gonzales is still considering the contempt request.
A receivership remains a possibility.
The order on the special master says she or he must be a subject-matter expert with experience in SNAP and Medicaid eligibility, will report to the court on compliance and make a recommendation on further remedial measures to ensure compliance, including “the propriety of a receivership.” The special master will file bi-monthly reports.
Within a month of being appointed, the special master, who will be paid by the department, must submit a proposed budget for the first year, including cost for consultants, technical and administrative employees, support staff and operating expenses.
The initial appointment will be until Jan. 1, 2018, but it is up to Gonzales to decide if he is satisfied that the department has a system that brings it into compliance.
Gonzales ordered Earnest and HSD employees to cooperate fully with the special master, and that the special master have full access to documents and computer systems.