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State told to speed up aid to poor

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The Associated Press

A federal judge in Albuquerque is ordering New Mexico to immediately process a backlog of thousands of applications from poor residents seeking health care and food assistance benefits.

U.S. District Judge Kenneth Gonzales issued the order Thursday as he scolded the Human Services Department as failing to meet its obligations to provide services in a timely manner.

The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty had accused the department of delaying applications and incorrectly denying or ending families’ benefits in violation of a 1998 consent decree between the state and federal governments.

For example, the center’s attorney, Gail Evans said, a single mother with a year-old daughter who tried to apply in February for emergency food assistance was told to go home and apply online.

By law, she should have been screened and given a decision immediately.

“She’s exactly who the program was designed for,” Evans said. “She didn’t get help. There was no word (from HSD) as of today.”

Human Services Department lawyers said they were addressing the problem and eliminating the backlog and asked for a three-month delay before the court took any enforcement action.

The department’s general counsel, Christopher Collins, said the state faced “a perfect storm” of complications from the implementation of health care reform, expansion of the Medicaid program, a new computer system at the department and an increase in the number of applicants because of the economy.

But the judge said the poor can’t wait, and he ordered the department to immediately make sweeping changes in its processes.

Immediately following the ruling, the advocacy group New Mexico Voices for Children issued a statement blasting the Human Services Department.

“New Mexico has the highest rate of hungry children in the nation. It is unconscionable that the state has been putting up roadblocks to keep children from receiving food assistance and health care,” said Veronica C. García, the organization’s executive director.

“SNAP and Medicaid benefits can make the difference between healthy children and children who face unnecessary hardships that can keep them from succeeding in school,” García added. “It’s no wonder New Mexico is ranked dead last for child well-being when the very agency that is supposed to administer these programs is making it difficult for children to receive the help they need.”

Editor’s note: The Optic’s Martín Salazar contributed to this report.