The mission statement written across the home page of New Mexico’s Human Services Department goes like this: “What We Do—Reduce the impact of poverty by providing support services that help families break the cycle of dependency on public assistance.”
They certainly do provide a bevy of services—everything from medical services and food stamps to work readiness programs for their clients. That is if you qualify.
That qualification process and its consequent subtext about Republican political pressure to demonstrably lower the welfare rolls in this state have recently come under intense scrutiny by a member of our state’s Democratic senate delegation. They have evidence that some applications from needy New Mexicans were delayed, altered or refused without regard to actual citizen needs.
Long a clearly enunciated strategy of conservative state governance, the reduction or elimination of welfare programs—or their draconian regulation through the use of work requirements and time limitations—often comes at the expense of an already significantly displaced part of our population.
So, after staffers at the state agency invoked the Fifth Amendment under questioning about where the directive to manipulate applications for assistance came from, Senator Jerry Ortiz y Pino (D-Bernalillo) called for the resignation of the department’s leadership team.
HSD, headed by Susana Martinez appointee Secretary Brent Earnest, has already had its share of bad publicity created by ongoing policy gaffes. Ortiz y Pino’s call for immediate changes in the department’s direction and public face is the culmination of several years of missteps, mismanagement and loss of vision regarding treatment of our most fragile citizens.
With a yearly budget of nearly $5 billion (including federal matching funds), Human Services is one of the largest departments in state government. HSD serves more than a third of New Mexico’s population. Refugee resettlement initiatives are administered by HSD, as are Medicaid and a wide range of behavioral health services and food assistance programs for low-income New Mexicans.
Historically speaking, refugee resettlement has not been an issue. However problems with long-term programs directed at citizens (Medicaid, behavioral health and food assistance) have been revealed as widespread in Earnest’s administration. In some cases these policy failures have prevented HSD from accomplishing its mission, meanwhile advancing an agenda that ignores the root causes of poverty and hunger in this state.
About 860,000 New Mexico residents will qualify for Medicaid this year. Declining oil and gas revenues in New Mexico led legislators to approve a budget that slightly increased HSD funding over last year, but still fell $86 million short of what was needed. Further, because of the shortfall, the state will lose out in more than $417 million in federal matching funds.
Obviously Medicaid-dependent New Mexicans, income-dependent individual health care providers and profit-conscious entities like Presbyterian Health Care (which provides more than 30 percent of Medicaid services in the state) are alarmed by this budgetary nightmare.
Besides saying he intends to ask the legislature for emergency funding during the 2017 roundhouse session, Earnest has not offered substantive plans to address patient needs. In this time of fiscal crisis, though three months have passed since the budget was approved, there is still no solution in place to ensure citizens continue to receive the care they need.
Further back in Earnest’s tenure, in June 2013, behavioral health services became an issue. After engaging a private firm to do an audit—which found scant evidence of Medicaid fraud, but which was later statistically manipulated and modified by the auditor to show massive fraud—the department immediately canceled the contracts of 15 primary providers. HSD also allowed the audit contractor to bypass department protocol; audited providers were not permitted to review the findings.
The abrupt closure of contracted providers was unnecessary according to experts. The results were keenly felt throughout the state as service availability plummeted, leaving those with behavioral health needs literally locked out of treatment options.
After some pressure from concerned citizens and journalists, and with the help and authorization of Democratic Attorney General Hector Balderas, the truth was ultimately revealed. This spring, 15 providers were exonerated; the scope of the malfeasance of the original audit became public. But lasting damage had been done to the reputation and efficacy of Earnest’s department.
Now after the behavioral health debacle and in the face of a life-threatening slow-down of Medicaid services to which there has been no adequate response, the HSD has again demonstrated a propensity for controversy and questionable actions.
State employees under oath have alleged that other workers at HSD falsified citizen applications in order to deny services to otherwise qualified applicants, some who had applied for emergency or expedited benefits. The court hearings where this testimony was recorded are part of a lawsuit brought by the New Mexico Center for Law and Poverty.
The court action claims that HSD continuously and wrongfully denied food stamp benefits to poor New Mexicans and asks that a federal monitor be appointed to oversee the HSD’s food assistance programs. Those who pleaded the fifth at last week's hearings included key members of the HSD administrative team, including Income Support Division Director Marilyn Martinez.
Clearly if these accusations are borne out, after demonstrating repeatedly that the at-risk citizens in this state are not a priority and that his management skills are contingent upon denying service to the most disaffected among us, then Earnest should fall on his sword. And the rest of the staff, under the aegis of a more effective leader, should be kindly reminded of their civic duty.