In the month since a federal judge ordered the New Mexico Department of Human Services to immediately process thousands of backlogged applications for food and medical benefits, the waiting list has grown, according to court documents.

A department spokesman said Monday that updated numbers, not yet filed in court, will show that the agency is making progress. A lawyer representing low-income New Mexicans seeking the benefits, however, was unconvinced the agency is complying with the judge’s order.

“We still see long lines at Income Support Division offices, not being able to be seen on the day you come in,” said Sovereign Hager, a lawyer with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. “People still aren’t getting interviews as scheduled. They can’t get through on the phone. People are still having tremendous difficulty, and the department is still terminating people’s food benefits because of processing delays.”

The judge’s ruling came in response to legal action brought by the center that aimed to end benefit wait times that some applicants said dragged on for months. Under a 15-year-old consent order, the state had agreed to a 30-day deadline for processing applications for standard food benefits and to process Medicaid applications within 45 days.

The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty presented evidence last month that applicants were waiting months to hear back from the department about whether they would receive help. Others, applying for emergency food benefits with an expectation that their requests would be processed within a week, also reported months-long waits.

Between the end of May and June 16, the number of unprocessed applications for food and Medicaid benefits swelled to 12,805 from 9,511, despite U.S. District Judge Kenneth Gonzales’ order May 15 directing the department to process the backlog immediately, according to documents filed with the court by the Center on Law and Poverty.

But a spokesman for the Human Services Department denied the backlog has grown, and said as of Monday, it has been cut nearly in half.

“By no means is the backlog growing — the numbers don’t lie,” said department spokesman Matt Kennicott. “We started off with more than 22,172 applications when the court order was filed, and that has decreased to 11,176 applications as of [Monday].”

Hager said the department’s statement that it has culled the waiting list is contradicted by the figures its lawyers have reported to the court.

“We would love to see that data,” Hager said.

In court documents, Human Services estimates it will be able to eliminate the backlog statewide by Aug. 1, but Hager said that doesn’t seem likely, based on the numbers submitted to the court.

Kennicott blamed the backlog on a flood of Medicaid applications that followed the start of enrollment in the Affordable Care Act. He also faulted the federal government for providing missing or incorrect information about applicants.

In pleadings to the court, lawyers for the department outlined steps it has taken to reduce the backlog, such as authorizing overtime for workers who process benefits.

The department’s preliminary estimated cost of trying to reduce the backlog is $950,000, according to Kennicott. He said a website for online benefit applications also has helped to ease the backlog, but Hager said not all applicants have convenient access to computers.

“It’s one tool,” she said. “It’s not going to fix this.”

As part of the judge’s order, applications for emergency food benefits — generally applying to those with incomes of $150 a month or less — were moved to the front of the line for processing. Human Services reported to the court that it has caught up on those applications. But Hager said lawyers for the state did not demonstrate that applications are being screened within 24 hours, as required by law.

Lawyers for the Center on Law and Poverty also are concerned that Human Services has not demonstrated it is complying with the judge’s order to stop automatically terminating food benefits to those whose applications are bogged down by processing delays.

To date, however, the center has not asked the court for any sanctions against the state, such as holding Human Services in contempt of court. The judge has scheduled a status update in the case for later this month.

“In the interim, the judge’s order set out things the department needs to do immediately to mitigate the impact of the backlog and make sure the least number of people are affected by the backlog,” Hager said. “Right now, the department has to continue benefits for people who are trying to renew. Unless the department follows that order, every month thousands of New Mexicans are losing food benefits and going hungry.”

©2014 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.)