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New Mexico Could Owe Feds Millions In Overpaid Food Stamps

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New Mexico owes the federal government millions in overpaid food stamp benefits, according to the Department of Agriculture (USDA), but the state is saying a court order left it with no choice, according to reports Tuesday.

The USDA is the main federal agency tasked with overseeing the national food stamp program. It works with state agencies to make sure benefits are properly distributed to qualified individuals and families struggling to feed themselves. USDA Regional Administrator Bill Ludwig asserted the state Human Services Department (HSD) owes millions in overpaid benefits.

“[The state must take] immediate action to correct the compliance issues outlined in the letter” Ludwig wrote in a letter obtained by The Santa Fe New Mexican. “It is imperative that HSD understand the severity and consequences of the issues outlined in this letter.”

Ludwig notes the state failed to check accounts and close benefits for those who fail to meet renewal or reporting requirements. HSD Cabinet Secretary Brent Earnest was first issued the letter May 27 before it was made public. The state, however, says it was merely following a 2014 federal court order.

“Because of that order, we are barred from making any changes,” HSD Spokesman Kyler Nerison told The Santa Fe New Mexican. “[We’re] helping more New Mexicans than ever before get the assistance they need, and we continue to exceed federal standards for processing applications.”

The federal court order required the state to stop closing certain welfare cases for procedural reasons. State employees testified that some agency managers manipulated records to deny emergency food benefits to qualified recipients. The court order, however, may have prevented the state from closing unqualified accounts as well.

Ludwig added the state also failed to maintain accurate case records for retroactive benefits. Democratic Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham accused the USDA of not providing enough oversight last week during a congressional hearing, reports the local affiliate of CBS News. A USDA Official Kevin Concannon called the state food stamp program the worst in the country during the hearing.

The food stamp program is the largest food assistance welfare service in the country. It is officially known as the The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The USDA estimates the program has increased from 17 million participants in 2000 to nearly 47 million in 2014.

The improved economy has helped decrease the number of participants in recent years. The Congressional Budget Office found, since participation hit its peak in December 2012, the number of people receiving benefits has declined by more than 1.5 million. States have also begun implementing work requirements which were waived in response to the last recession.

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