Outrageous. Shocking. Criminal?
That’s our reaction to testimony from Human Services Department caseworkers who claim that their bosses inflated the resources of needy people applying for emergency food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Why the bureaucratic fudging of paperwork? More assets (as little as $400) would mean the applicant no longer qualified for expedited help. New Mexico already faces sanctions for not processing aid claims fast enough; too many delays, and the department would be shown — again — that it is not complying with court directives. Thus, the incentive to lie.
We have long known that navigating federal programs, whether for food or medical help, in New Mexico is overly complex and burdensome. What last week’s hearing in federal Magistrate Court revealed is that in some cases, there appears to have been willful obstruction. The troublesome testimony came during a motion hearing asking for the Human Services Department to be held in contempt of court for not complying with a 25-year-old consent decree. The 1991 order came out of a 1988 lawsuit — obviously, the troubles in the department predate even the last two governors.
The New Mexico Center for Law and Poverty claims that New Mexico is illegally denying and closing off food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, what used to be known as food stamps. Five workers in the Income Support Division from different parts of the state all agreed they had been told that if they couldn’t meet a seven-day deadline for emergency food assistance, they were to pass the file to a supervisor. At that point, the boss could modify the file so the applicant wasn’t eligible for emergency help. Using delays, the state could process the claim and not miss a deadline — that would help the department’s numbers on federal audits.
These workers — who fear retaliation over testimony and should be protected — deserve praise for speaking out. One 10-year employee from Taos even kept notes on an original application; a supervisor reportedly later added $400 in “phantom” assets, but the original file contains a different story, according to testimony. The problems aren’t alleged to occur just with SNAP, but also in processing Medicaid applications.
New Human Services Department Secretary Brent Earnest tried to argue in the daylong hearing that the complexity of federal regulations and an overwhelmed department are at the root of problems with processing applications; he’s likely right, and we believe he is trying to correct the situation. He inherited the mess. But the fact remains that New Mexico cannot run its federal assistance programs in compliance with the law. That’s been apparent for years.
What happens next is up to federal Magistrate Carmen Garza, who was assigned the case by U.S. District Judge Kenneth Gonzales a year ago. We agree with lawyers who want more oversight over the state’s benefits process. Medicaid and SNAP recipients do not deserve the runaround. They deserve to be treated with respect and to receive — in a timely fashion — the help they are due. That the state is an obstacle to assistance, rather than making aid possible, needs to change.
Appointment of an independent monitor is the right step now, especially over the troubled Income Support Decision. We understand Earnest’s concerns that such a monitor diverts money from directly helping the poor; that’s an important point. However, the dysfunctions in the department have to be untangled. That means direction from outside to streamline the process; the fallback, so far as federal law allows, must be to approve applications rather than seek to deny. That a department already failing to process basic applications wants to add more paperwork — through new, unnecessary work requirements — demonstrates the department does not have the best interests of the needy at heart. Independent oversight is needed.
The contempt hearing and any decision on oversight should not be the end of this matter, either. Both the attorney general or the U.S. attorney, after hearing this testimony, should investigate charges that workers are being encouraged to delay applications, even to the point of supervisors falsifying assets. That’s fraud, pure and simple, if allegations can be proved. State Auditor Tim Keller announced his own investigation Friday. Something is rotten in the Human Services Department — and that core disregard for the law and the human dignity of aid recipients won’t be repaired without vigorous, independent oversight.