New Mexico is still too slow in delivering food and medical assistance to the many people here who need it—and the problem is the people in charge. That’s according to a court appointed expert – a special master – who spent a year working inside the state Human Services Department’s Income Support Division.
KUNM spoke with Sovereign Hager, an attorney on the case against the state who works for the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty.
HAGER: This case is really important because it holds the state accountable for getting food and medical assistance to families so that they can eat, so they can feed their kids, and so that people can see a doctor. And the state has not complied with the law, has not complied with court orders requiring them to get folks food and medical assistance, and hasn’t been in compliance for years.
KUNM: And there’s still a big backlog of applications even though this lawsuit is ongoing and there’s been different orders at different times about trying to get that backlog taken care of. The recommendation right now is that some of the higher-ups have to removed from their positions. But that’s still in the hands of the state. That decision is still made by the state, right?
HAGER: The special master has found that the root of this continued problem is the people in charge. And that’s something I think we’ve been saying for a while. And I think it’s quite meaningful that this outsider who has come in with expertise monitoring the department is really asking for the same thing. And the state has not moved people, even after widespread fraud, even after evidence has come out of multiple instances of wrongdoing on behalf of high-level management, the state has not made changes.
KUNM: And the state is objecting to the special master’s report. Folks at HSD are saying they’re doing more to get things in order now than ever before.
HAGER: That is the state’s contention. The state seems unwilling to follow the special master’s recommendation and seems to think that they should be able to make these changes on their timeframe. And that New Mexicans entitled to assistance should just wait for the state to get this done for however long it takes. That’s not what the law requires. The state should come into compliance. The special master said that in fact, other states had had much bigger problems that he had seen, and fixed them much quicker than New Mexico had.
KUNM: So what does the judge have to decide and when will he make the call?
HAGER: So, right now, Judge [Kenneth] Gonzales has to decide what part, if not all, of the special master’s report he’s going to adopt, and if he’s going to order anything in addition to adopting the recommendation. So he might, for example, order sanctions or some other kind of remedy.
KUNM: If nothing gets any better, what’s the next step? Could someone else take over the system entirely?
HAGER: One thing that we’ve consistently pushed for is the remedy that we think would immediately change the management, which is something called a receivership, where the federal court appoints someone with the actual authority to make decisions inside the Income Support Division. And that’s a step of authority farther than the current special master has. If things don’t get better, that’s certainly on the table, and the judge has been clear, he would consider that in the future.
KUNM: What does the Center on Law and Poverty want to see happen with this case?
HAGER: Like everyone in New Mexico, we want families to be able to eat and have access to health care because, as a society, we all do better when our communities are healthy and have what they need to thrive. And so we want families to have access to these benefits that they’re entitled to have under the law. And that means that the state would be timely processing applications, giving families information about their applications, and getting folks benefits on time. And that there won’t be unnecessary barriers to getting the assistance you need.