The central question in a two-decade federal court case is whether New Mexico’s Human Services Department is distributing SNAP and Medicaid fast enough and to the right people. A new boss was appointed to HSD in January. KUNM heard from Secretary David Scrase about the changes he’s making.
SCRASE: We are committed to ensuring that every qualified New Mexican receives timely and accurate benefits. We’ve got a million customers. We’ve got over 60 benefit plans that are regulated by state and federal law. Those laws change, and actually, they don’t always agree with each other. So, if you just think about the complexity involved in that, we really need to focus on the configuration of our information system to absolutely ensure it is completely supporting our employees.
KUNM: People who work for HSD in the Income Support Division testified in court in 2016 that they’d been told to add assets to people’s applications so they wouldn’t be eligible for emergency food aid. How are you sure that this kind of fraud isn’t still happening, and won’t happen again going forward?
SCRASE: First, I’ll just say, that’s deplorable. I’ve made it very very clear—including a memo to all employees—that every piece of information put in needs to be completely accurate. If there’s a reason that a certain field has to be entered a certain way that might not be completely accurate, that that requires documentation as well as to why that was done, and how that will help the member get benefits.
And we also are working ways of monitoring the system to see—to pop up a red flag here and there—if a decision to give someone benefits was going one way, and then it seems to be reversed near the end. We have not perfected that, but I do know that all our employees know, based on hearing directly from me, what’s expected of them, and I also told them that it was really important to me, that they completely understand the directive about only having accurate information. And I gave them my cell phone number that they could call if they had any questions.
KUNM: When you took this position, did you look and see whether any of the supervisors who gave those orders were still employed at HSD, or maybe had been just transferred to other departments?
SCRASE: I’m hesitant to answer that question because even giving you an answer would imply that I agree that there’s evidence that supervisors gave those directions. But that’s not an acceptable behavior, and there were some positions outlined in the court, and we have examined those carefully, and most of those people are no longer with the state government, and the folks that are, you know, we’re working with to ensure that there’s no possibility that anything like this could ever happen again. But I’m quite confident that in those few cases that it will not.
KUNM: There was another hearing in this federal court case and lawyers with the Center on Law and Poverty brought forward their findings that some people still aren’t getting access to the programs they’re eligible for, that their applications were still be rejected when they should be approved. That research also showed that sometimes HSD was illegally asking for extra documents or not giving out the right notices and forms. What systemic changes are needed to make sure that those errors stop happening?
SCRASE: We don’t agree with all the statistics that the plaintiff’s attorneys brought forth. That is not to say in any way that we don’t think there’s opportunities for improvement and a need for us to do better. I mean, we wouldn’t be making multimillion-dollar investments if we thought everything was just fine. We know that there’s more that we need to do. And we can’t just keep directing the employees to solve a problem that could be configured into the system to make things work.
KUNM: What are the things particularly that you disagreed with?
SCRASE: I think the main thing I disagreed with the plaintiffs is a statement they made that any improvements we’d made in timeliness of processing applications were meaningless in the absence of any members not getting benefits. We had 96,000 people to process in the queue for benefits in the year 2016. And I didn’t check this morning, but last Thursday, we had something like 1857, which is one day’s work. I think that’s a monumental accomplishment, and an incredible amount of credit needs to go to our employees and their managers who’ve found ways to improve the system and to make these applications more timely. And so, I think it’s important that we collaborate together and celebrate the successes.