A group that advocates for New Mexico’s poor says the state Human Services Department has been slow to process applications for food benefits and health care, leaving many people to languish in hunger in violation of a 15-year-old legal agreement.
On Thursday, the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty will ask U.S. District Judge Ken Gonzales to order the department to honor a 1998 federal court settlement, in which it agreed to the timely processing of applications for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps.
The center states in court documents that SNAP benefit processing has fallen by 23 percent since September, and an estimated 20,000 people in the state have lost their food benefits since the backlog began.
Lawyers for the department, in court pleadings, blamed any application backlog on the rollout of the Affordable Care Act last fall, which coincided with the launch of a new state computer system to administer benefits.
Matt Kennicott, a spokesman for the Human Services Department, amplified that point. He said complaints about slow processing were “absolutely incorrect.”
“The increase in applications is due mainly to Obamacare and transfers from the federal exchange coming in large, sporadic batches instead of daily beginning in November, as they were supposed to,” Kennicott said. “By March, the volume of monthly Medicaid applications, including transfers from the federal exchange, had more than tripled. In September 2013, we received 19,609; in March, we received 61,674.”
He said the department has hired additional staff to solve the problem and has implemented a 24-hour website so applicants don’t have to wait in an office.
“The backlog should be cleared up very soon, even as we challenge the [court] motion,” Kennicott said.
Sovereign Hager, a lawyer with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, said the plaintiffs believe the state’s launch of the $115 million Automated System Program and Eligibility Network, or ASPEN, computer system to manage benefits through the Human Services Department’s Income Support Division has been a part of the problem. The system has improperly denied applicants’ benefits, she said.
In recent months, she said, the department increasingly has shirked its legal obligation to make caseworkers available to screen applicants for benefits, sometimes delaying eligible recipients from receiving food assistance for months or indefinitely.
“New Mexico applications for Medicaid and SNAP/food stamps are taking weeks, and even months longer than the federally mandated timelines,” lawyers wrote in a motion asking the court to order Human Services to process applications more quickly. “Even worse, some applications are not processed at all.”
The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty contends Human Services is ignoring its earlier court settlement and federal laws that require SNAP applications to be processed within 30 days, Medicaid applications within 45 days and emergency food assistance — designed for people with monthly incomes of about $100 — within 24 hours.
Hager said the center plans to present evidence of the effect that inaccessible caseworkers and the ASPEN system have had on the lives of New Mexico residents in poverty, in their own words.
In sworn affidavits on file with the court, applicants describe waiting for hours, beginning as early as 5 a.m., in line outside the Income Support Division offices, only to be turned away without getting to apply for new or renewed benefits because the offices “only see a certain number of people each day.”
Applicants reported returning to the offices up to 10 times without ever getting in to see a caseworker and never receiving return phone calls from the agency. As a result, many, including single working mothers with multiple children, say they’ve gone weeks without food benefits.
In some cases, the applicants were seeking to renew benefits that had been improperly terminated by the ASPEN system, according to lawyers.
The plaintiffs also are asking the judge to require Human Services to assure applicants can meet with a caseworker on the same day they submit applications for benefits; determine eligibility for SNAP food benefits within 10 working days of an application; hire and train more staff to assure timely processing of applications; and review online applications for benefits dating back to Oct. 1 to ensure eligibility decisions were handled properly.
Lawyers for the Department of Human Services challenge the plaintiffs’ argument that benefit services are slow, referring to the benefit application process as “proven and unwavering excellence.”
“Plaintiffs would have this court believe that suddenly, for neither rhyme nor reason, the department went to work one day and, to a person, completely forgot how to do that which it does every working day,” the department’s lawyers wrote in court pleadings.
They noted the state’s expansion of Medicaid eligibility and the 105,000 new enrollees in the program between October and April. They also pointed to a report issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the summer of 2013 that spotlighted New Mexico as a beacon of success in processing benefit applications.
“The intake process allows caseworkers to screen clients for expedited service and conduct an interview that day,” the USDA report said.
It went on to report, “If a client is entitled to expedited services, workers process the application immediately. All drop-off applications are screened the same day.”
Affidavits on file with the court from advocates for the poor and homeless, as well as former Human Services employees, tell a different story. One former department employee said the backlog of unprocessed benefits applications numbered 60,000 in November, and staff had been inadequately trained on the ASPEN computer system.
While the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty is asking the judge to enforce the existing legal agreement for timely processing of benefit applications, lawyers for Human Services will argue that it should be thrown out altogether.
“What is clear from the long-term success that the Department has enjoyed in processing benefits applications,” they wrote in pleadings to the court, “is that the appropriate purpose for the parties’ appearance before this Court is to discuss a short-term schedule for the termination of an obsolete consent decree.”