ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - Advocates for New Mexico recipients of food aid and Medicaid health care urged state lawmakers on Friday to keep tabs on wasteful bureaucratic problems that they say cause aid beneficiaries to submit applications repeatedly and unnecessarily.
The discussion took place as a federal judge weighs a recommendation to hold the Human Services Department in contempt and appoint a court-supervised “special master” to help ensure that the agency fulfills past court orders and laws in the administration of federally funded benefits.
The recommendation from a federal magistrate responds in part to court testimony by Human Service Department 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.
Sovereign Hager, an attorney for the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty that represents aid beneficiaries, on Friday told members of a legislative committee overseeing the state Human Services Department that state funds are being wasted as eligible families are unwittingly dropped from assistance coverage because they don’t receive notices or cannot quickly fulfill burdensome paperwork requirements.
She urged lawmakers to use the state budget process to request statistics and monitor improvements in the accurate processing of emergency food aid and efforts to make sure eligible beneficiaries are not cut off from aid because of burdensome paperwork.
“It’s a threat to health and safety,” said Hager. “There’s a cost to the state. … The state ends up processing more and more of these applications. It’s estimated renewal applications cost double or triple.”
Christopher Collins, general counsel to the Human Service Department, told the committee that the appointment of a special master would be a welcome development. The agency submitted a new request in federal court this week to close out many aid cases that have been held open under a May 2014 court order because of administrative violations.
The United State Department of Agriculture, which funds nutritional assistance, has warned that New Mexico may be overpaying benefits by millions of dollars, without providing a specific estimate.
“The USDA sent us a letter saying you must start closing these cases,” Collins said. “So that’s the rock and the hard place.”
Hager said the agency has itself to blame for not addressing the court’s concerns sooner.
A legislative analysis in April found that the state had spent an additional $5.4 million as a result of court the 2014 federal court orders. Jon Courtney, a program evaluator with the Legislative Finance Committee, said about $2.4 million of the total was spent on benefits that would not otherwise have been awarded.
The Human Services Department in May hired an outside attorney to assist in the litigation, Paul Kennedy, who has so far has billed $10,000 out of an authorized $80,000 authorized for litigation.
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