KRWG

Court asked to order HSD to implement plan to remove barriers to food and medical assistance

Nov 20, 2019

Commentary: Families continue to go without food and medical assistance they are eligible for because the New Mexico Human Services Department has failed to implement major elements of a corrective action plan the department itself helped draft and the court approved and mandated. In a motion filed yesterday evening on behalf of plaintiffs in the lawsuit Deborah Hatten Gonzales v. David Scrase, the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty asked a U.S. District Court to order HSD to comply with the plan, set deadlines, share information, and meet with plaintiffs.

“No family should have to go hungry or be without health coverage, but that’s exactly what’s happening in New Mexico,” said Teague Gonzalez, supervising attorney at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. “We were encouraged by the plan we developed with HSD, but the department has stopped cooperating and is refusing to set deadlines and fix long standing problems. HSD needs to implement the plan they agreed to immediately.”

While HSD has made some progress, serious failures continue. In the motion, the Center charges that HSD has refused to implement a corrective action plan and court ordered changes including: 

  • Improving its notoriously faulty IT system so families with immigrant members are not illegally denied benefits or required to provide documents that are not necessary to get benefits for eligible family members; 
  • Fixing the language in form notices so they explain how families can prove their eligibility to maintain their food and medical assistance and clearly understand why they are denied benefits; and
  • Implementing basic eligibility content into a worker manual, improve regulations, and worker training. 

The court mandated a review of HSD case files that was completed in February 2019. In this audit, the Center found tremendous errors in 67 percent of all cases involving immigrant families. Of these, 60 percent resulted in a delay of one month or more in receiving assistance.

In 2016, the court held former HSD Secretary Brent Earnest in contempt for failing to remove systemic barriers to assistance for eligible families applying for food and Medicaid assistance and appointed a Special Master to monitor and make recommendations to the department.

Judge Kenneth Gonzales set a series of deadlines in April 2018 for HSD compliance with court ordered reforms. Under new HSD Secretary David Scrase, plaintiffs and HSD jointly drafted, and agreed upon, a corrective action plan that the court approved in July 2019. However, HSD hired a new acting general counsel in August 2019 and collaboration has halted.

The long-running Hatten-Gonzales lawsuit was originally filed in 1989. While some progress has been made, HSD has never satisfactorily addressed entrenched problems in administering food and medical assistance. In 2016, HSD whistleblowers testified that there was a statewide policy of falsifying information on emergency benefits applications so the agency could pass federal audits and deadlines. This illegal policy resulted in thousands of New Mexican families going without the food assistance they needed.

There will be a status conference on the state’s compliance with the multiple court orders to remove barriers to food and medical assistance for eligible families tomorrow at 10:00 a.m. in U.S. District Court in Las Cruces before Judge Kenneth Gonzales.

The court motion can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/hatten-gonzales-v-earnest-motion-to-enforce-judgment-2019-11-19/

The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty report on its case review can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/nmclp-report-on-hsd-case-review-2019-02-25-redacted/

The jointly developed corrective action plan can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/hatten-gonzales-v-scrace-joint-motion-to-approve-two-corrective-action-plans-2019-07-10/

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 The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty is dedicated to advancing economic and social justice through education, advocacy, and litigation. We work with low-income New Mexicans to improve living conditions, increase opportunities, and protect the rights of people living in poverty.