We must do better

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By Optic Editorial Board

Federal and state agencies oversee a number of programs that are supposed to serve as a safety net for those down on their luck.

Those programs are critical for people who have lost their jobs and don’t have money for groceries or health insurance for their children.

But in New Mexico a “perfect storm” of events has resulted in a backlog of thousands of applications from poor residents who have applied for health care and food assistance.

The general counsel for the New Mexico Human Services Department argued in court last week that 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 have all contributed to the backlog.

But that explanation likely provides little comfort to the poor and the hungry who are having to hold off on taking their kids to the doctor or who are skipping meals because their food assistance benefits haven’t kicked in yet. State officials overseeing these important programs should have realized that these backlogs are hurting real people, and they should have done everything in their power to address the problem.

Unfortunately, they failed to do that, resulting in a lawsuit from the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty.

Last week, U.S. District Judge Kenneth Gonzales heard the case, and he scolded the Human Services Department for failing to meet its obligations to provide services in a timely manner. He also ordered the agency to process the backlog immediately.

We applaud the Center for Law and Poverty for filing the case and Judge Gonzales for ordering the Human Services Department to do the right thing.

Following the ruling, New Mexico Voices for Children issued a statement blasting the state Human Services Department for the massive backlog.

“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 Executive Director Veronica C. García.

She noted that 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.

We agree.