For years, there’s been a fight in court about whether the state of New Mexico is following federal law when it comes to distributing food and medical assistance to almost half a million people here. Advocates told a federal judge this week that the state Human Services Department is still illegally denying SNAP and Medicaid to some eligible families. KUNM spoke with Maria Griego Thursday, May 16, right after the court hearing in Las Cruces. Griego is an attorney with The Center on Law and Poverty, and she explained what the state is doing wrong.
MARIA GRIEGO: Three major areas of legal violations included asking families to turn in documents that aren’t necessary to determine eligibility, or making them turn in documents that have already been turned in. The second area was errors in important notices and forms sent to families. And then the last major area was the department applied a flawed policy or practice, and the family either didn’t get the full benefits they were entitled to or were incorrectly denied.
KUNM: A couple years ago in 2016, it came out in court that staffers for the state were told to change information on people’s applications. The court put an independent special master in place to keep an eye on the Human Services Department. Did that person, the special master, verify what you brought before the judge?
GRIEGO: The special master and his compliance specialist both validated our findings in the case review. They validated our overall error findings and agreed as to the three major areas of noncompliance.
KUNM: You’re down in Las Cruces right now, and you just got out of federal court, the hearing just concluded. How did it go?
GRIEGO: Overall it went really well. This was an opportunity for the judge to hear what has happened since the new secretary came into office.
KUNM: That’s the new HSD Secretary David Scrase, right?
GRIEGO: Yes. The new secretary, he agreed that those are major systemic and programmatic barriers that exist. He said that he is committed to working with us to make sure that workers are trained, that they get the training they need to make sure they’re applying eligibility policies correctly. And he’s really open to communicating with us and coming up with a plan to work together to move this case forward.
KUNM: Because there’s a new HSD secretary in place who seems willing to make some changes, do you have hope that this could finally be settled for good?
GRIEGO: Yeah, I mean if they are willing to come up with some real comprehensive long-term solutions—versus just several little half steps or interim steps—then yes, I think with the will of this administration to want to work with us, I think we can make some real strides toward wrapping up this litigation.
KUNM: Did you see anything in the hearing that indicated to you that maybe that wouldn’t happen, that maybe this wouldn’t finally be put to bed?
GRIEGO: I guess the only thing is that this new administration has prized itself on increased timeliness numbers. They’ve really increased the speed at which they’re processing SNAP and Medicaid cases. But what we saw in the case review is that thousands of families are not getting accurate determinations. And so while it’s important to timely process cases, it’s really crucial that the department not be singularly focused on that, knowing that a lot of these cases, although timely processed, were processed incorrectly.
KUNM: Is there any way to create a system that’s kind of inoculated against the whims of whoever’s in charge?
GRIEGO: Well, certainly this department took steps to actually revise their mission statement—and I don’t know how long the previous mission statement was in place—but this current mission statement is really about the department’s goal of getting all families who are eligible for the program enrolled. And so this secretary has said that he’s really hammered that idea home with the employees. And so if that approach and that mentality is seen by the workers and the department, they know that that’s coming from the top down, I think that’s a step toward making this a long-standing sort of shift in how we view the families that are applying for benefits.