Democratic legislators this week blasted the administration of Gov. Susana Martinez for a scandal unfolding in the state office that administers food stamps and other benefits. Their outrage came shortly after New Mexico officials released an interesting investigative report on allegations that state employees altered food stamp applications to meet timeliness standards, effectively denying qualifying poor people the emergency benefits they were legally entitled to.
Drafted by the Human Services Department Office of Inspector General, the report draws on interviews with department workers and analyses of case files.
If you’re like us, you have a lot of questions. We’ll try to answer them all here.
What is the Human Services Department Office of Inspector General?
That’s a two-part question. HSD is the cabinet-level state agency that manages a number of benefits programs and social services, like Medicaid and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Within the department, an investigative unit called the Office of Inspector General (OIG) looks into allegations of fraud and waste and other bad behavior.
What exactly are they investigating?
The report released on Monday concerns the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps.
In April, five HSD employees publicly alleged in federal court that colleagues and bosses doctored food stamp applications to skirt a federal requirement called expedited services.
If the allegations are true, the perpetrators could be guilty of a number of federal crimes, including false statements and conspiracy.
Wait, back up for a second. What are expedited services?
Usually, HSD has 30 days to process food stamp applications. But in certain emergency scenarios, the department is required to deliver benefits within seven days.
In order to qualify for expedited services, a household must make less than $150 in gross monthly income and have less than $100 in assets, or their combined income and assets must be less than their rent, mortgage and utilities. Allegations say HSD employees inflated assets to disqualify households from emergency benefits.
So HSD is allegedly denying emergency benefits to the poorest of the poor?
Why? That seems cruel.
Good question. We don’t know for sure why, but the investigative report offers at least one suggestion.
OIG’s interviews suggest that application processors are under a lot of pressure to meet timeliness standards. Multiple interviewees, based all over the state, said their bosses expected them to have a 98 percent timeliness rate, or else they faced disciplinary action (federal guidelines call for 95 percent).
If a person qualifies for emergency benefits but doesn’t get their food stamps within seven days, that person’s application becomes a “late expedite,” which reflects poorly on the employee and the income support division office they work in.
To avoid such a scenario, some workers say their bosses encouraged them to add assets to “late expedite” applications so they no longer qualified for emergency benefits. Other workers claim they were directed to pass the application to a supervisor, who would in turn inflate someone’s assets. The benefit: HSD gets extra time. The cost: Someone in need of food stamps has to wait much longer for assistance.
Why would they alter assets and not income?
Assets don’t affect how much in food stamps someone receives, just when they receive them. Income affects both.
And people are saying this was official policy?
No. Workers allege that when their bosses directed them to fudge applications, they did so verbally. As notes from one interview put it, “Nothing was in writing.”
One worker, based in Albuquerque, says her office has a name for the practice: “Code Red.”
All the interviewees said they were told to fudge applications?
No, some of the workers said they’ve never been asked to falsify information. For example, this comment came from an interview with a worker in the Northeast Bernalillo County income support office: “Entering false information on a case would be wrong.”
If this is happening, what is the scope of the problem?
At this point, it’s impossible to say.
But OIG did examine applications submitted online in January, February and April of 2016. They looked at online applications “due to a reduced potential for case worker error.” Plus, the computer system that processes online applications automatically triggers expedited service requirements when applicable.
Of 13,007 applications listed as online submissions, 206 contained “potential false statements.”
Has OIG made any definitive conclusions yet?
No, it is an ongoing investigation. The report released Monday says, “A determination of whether or not the allegations were substantiated cannot be made at this time until further analysis and interviews are conducted.”
How did this all begin?
This criminal investigation actually stems from a civil lawsuit filed against the Human Services Department back in 1988. The class-action suit accused the department of illegally denying benefits to thousands of New Mexicans. A judge subjected HSD to a federal consent decree, ordering the department to get its act together.
The department is still struggling to comply with that order. Recently, the plaintiff’s attorneys called for the court to assign an outside expert to oversee functions related to the consent decree. Media coverage of that move, most notably from New Mexico Political Report’s Joey Peters (a former SFR staff writer), caught the eye of the American Federation of County, State and Municipal Employees (AFCSME), a union that represents government workers.
Some of those AFCSME members ended up testifying in federal court about the allegations of falsified applications. Media coverage of those hearings prompted HSD to launch the ongoing investigation.
Susana Martinez is at it again, that heartless, no-good Republican. I have had it with this evil administration. Why, if I ever …
Cool your jets, dude. As New Mexican reporter Justin Horwath (another former SFR staff writer) notes, at least one of the interviews suggests that this practice began during the Bill Richardson administration. But then again, HSD is the same agency that oversaw the 2013 behavioral health shakeup.