A report on whether New Mexico is providing timely access to emergency food benefits and health coverage under Medicaid is the focus of a hearing in federal court Thursday as activists pressure the state to address what they say are persistent processing delays.
The hearing before U.S. District Judge Kenneth Gonzales is part of an ongoing legal battle over the state Human Services Department’s progress in meeting court orders related to a backlog of food and medical assistance claims.
The report was prepared in January by a special master who was appointed to monitor and make recommendations to the department. The report raised concerns about a lack of accountability at all levels and stated that the agency lacks sufficient knowledge, skills and abilities to oversee the program.
The report recommends a management shake-up, the appointment of experts and improvements in worker training.
The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, an advocacy group, contends that the department develops a backlog of unprocessed cases each month and that phone calls from benefit recipients often go unanswered.
The department has argued that it’s doing more than ever before to meet the court orders, pointing to the processing of more applications and reduced wait times in its field offices.
In court filings, the state has argued against removing staff, saying a shake-up in leadership would be counterproductive as there is evidence of progress.
The case stems from a class-action lawsuit filed nearly 30 years ago on behalf of a single mother who ran into a bureaucratic wall while trying to obtain medical and food assistance for herself and her son after her wages were cut drastically.
In 2016, the judge held state Human Services Secretary Brent Earnest in contempt over allegations that he did not diligently attempt to comply with court orders concerning the handling of Medicaid benefit renewals, eligibility for immigrants, training for agency employees and other administrative requirements.
Later that same year, the judge appointed the special master as an alternative to a more far-reaching request by advocates for aid recipients that a federal receiver implement administrative changes.
The calls for outside oversight followed court testimony by state caseworkers that expedited food aid applications were falsified to meet federal deadlines — sometimes under pressure from management — likely delaying the delivery of benefits as a result.