judge refuses to lift New Mexico’s consent decree on social benefits | Local News
A federal judge has ruled that the New Mexico Department of Human Services must continue to follow a decades-old consent decree that requires it to improve the way it processes welfare claims.
Ending court oversight would be “premature” and could “delay the progress the parties have made so far,” US District Judge Kenneth John Gonzales wrote in an order issued Friday.
The case began in 1988 when Debra Hatten-Gonzales, a single mother and janitor, sued the state for the slowness with which it had dealt with its request for public assistance.
The lawsuit led to a consent decree in 1990 requiring the Department of Social Services to resolve issues with its food stamp and Medicaid programs.
Earlier this month, the agency asked the court to end the consent decree, citing improvements in its welfare programs.
The judge dismissed the state’s petition, saying: “New Mexicans, more than ever, count on the prompt and accurate processing of [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] and Medicaid apps to get the help we need so badly.
The pandemic has put many New Mexicans out of work, said Teague González of the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, who represents welfare recipients in the case.
“We were surprised that the state attorney found it appropriate to file this petition now when so many New Mexicans need help even more,” González said in a statement. “We will continue our efforts to ensure that New Mexicans can access food and medical assistance in close coordination with the court-appointed special master and the HSD. “
A spokeswoman for the social services department did not respond to a request for comment on Saturday.
In 2016, a scandal erupted when whistleblowers accused officials of falsifying emergency food stamp requests to inflate families’ holdings and make the state appear to be meeting federal claims processing deadlines.
That same year, a senior US Department of Agriculture official described New Mexico as having the “dirtiest” food stamp program in the country.