Parties to welfare-eligibility lawsuit signal common goals

New Mexico

Plaintiffs in a lawsuit that faults the state with improperly denying certain welfare benefits to needy residents of New Mexico signaled a cooperative approach to their demand for administrative changes under the fledgling Democratic administration of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, at a federal court hearing on Thursday.

Attorney Maria Griego of the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty said her advocacy group plans to work directly with state officials overseeing welfare eligibly to address shortcomings.

The group provided a judge with new indications that the state continued last year to deny food and medical assistance to eligible applicants by insisting they fill out unnecessary paperwork. It also cited instances of people being incorrectly denied some or all benefits and in which the state misinformed welfare applicants about eligibility requirements.

“We’re going to proceed in good faith in working with the department and hope that we can get this done without requiring more oversight of the court for now,” Griego said.

Following the hearing, Human Service Secretary David Scrase said he is determined to make progress toward ensuring that benefits are awarded in an accurate and timely fashion to eligible residents.

“We want to do a better job in verifying … and don’t ask clients for any more information than we need,” he said.

Scrase noted that improvements in information technology are crucial to finding solutions. He said his agency oversees more than 60 benefit plans — from the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program to Medicaid and household utility-payment subsidies — that help more than a million people in a state of 2.1 million residents.

“It’ll be set up to last for years and years,” said Scrase, a practicing physician, of the technology overhaul. “I’ve never been a band-aid doctor, and I’m not a band-aid administrator.”

Scrase’s predecessor under Republican Gov. Susana Martinez was held in contempt of court in 2016 over allegations that he did not attempt to comply with court orders concerning the handling of Medicaid benefit renewals, eligibility for immigrants, training for agency employees and other administrative requirements.

State caseworkers had testified 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.

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