NM’s long fight for fair access to safety-net programs

A look at barriers to applying for SNAP and Medicaid for people with disabilities, who make up over one-quarter of participants

By: - October 8, 2021 6:30 am

Michelangelo Morse, of Española, N.M., had to turn to a community organization to apply for public benefits because of how difficult it was to fill out the state application. (Photo courtesy of Michelangelo Morse)

Michelangelo Morse found himself sitting in the middle of his living room floor in Española, N.M., surrounded by a circle of records, like doctor’s discharge orders, Social Security information — all the papers.

A traumatic brain injury in 2012 left him with issues in cognition and executive function. He’d learned how to walk again over the course of two months. And now he needed to figure out the applications for health care and food assistance — again. “I’d just be literally sitting there crying, trying to figure out, you know, what goes where? What goes in my application?” Morse said. “Filling out even one application page was super overwhelming.”

That’s how it was almost any time he needed to apply for something.

On average, more than 27% of N.M. participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program are in families with members who are elderly or have disabilities, according to an analysis of USDA data.

Disability and eligibility

The first time Morse applied for benefits back in 2012, it was easy, he said. 

This story is part two of a series. Find yesterday’s article here

He was living on his own without any income or, really, any food.

He walked into the office and got benefits.

But then his health took a turn for the worse, and he started suffering from epilepsy as a result of the injury. “That’s when I started having seizures really badly,” he said. He moved back home with his mother and stepfather in Española a couple of months after first getting Medicaid and food assistance. At that point, the state started counting his parents’ income toward his eligibility.

“So they took all my benefits away,” he said. “I had no choice but to move back home, but they literally just stripped them completely away from me.”

SNAP considers a disabled person’s medical expenses, housing costs and total assets when calculating how much food assistance they receive. It also looks at whether any members of the household are already receiving disability benefits.

Morse had problems with planning and memory. “I couldn’t remember certain things when I would look at it, so I’d have to stop what I was doing, find paperwork or what have you,” he said.

Eventually, collecting all of the information to apply for SNAP and Medicaid was just too much. Morse then got connected to a caseworker through Goodwill Industries New Mexico, who started helping him with figuring out his application. Even with the help, he said they couldn’t make it happen.

They tried again and again, he said, at least 20 times up until 2020 when he had his last caseworker.

“We just redid it and redid it, hoping something would happen,” Morse said. “I got denial letters every single time.”

He said the state counted his own disability income along with his parents’ income, which made him ineligible to receive SNAP or Medicaid.

“I’m on Social Security Disability, so obviously, I’m disabled, but I make too much to qualify for anything,” Morse said. But if he lived on his own and had to pay rent, he said, he’d be starving. 

The narrow definition of disability for the purpose of determining whether someone is eligible to get SNAP benefits excludes many people with severe and long-lasting disabilities, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty has been working to make applications for the SNAP and Medicaid more accessible. That’s actually an anti-discrimination requirement under federal law. The center found that the state’s Human Services Department too often failed to provide adequate assistance to clients with disabilities trying to apply for SNAP and Medicaid, and this led to qualified people not receiving help when they needed it.

In 2018 — six years after Morse first applied for help — they convinced a judge to order HSD to make sure that applications are processed in a timely fashion.

Tim Gardner, the legal director at Disability Rights New Mexico, said Morse’s story — though maybe not common — isn’t surprising.

There are different ways to calculate whose income counts in the calculation for benefits for people with disabilities, Gardner said. He doesn’t know the specifics of Morse’s case, “but it sounds like something went really wrong,” he said.

In New Mexico in 2020, even the process for seeking Social Security Disability benefits could be harrowing, according to the stats. Only about 38% of people who applied were approved last year based on their initial application, according to Citizens Disability. Then, roughly 13% were approved when they requested that their case be considered again. Finally, 42% got their benefits in the third stage, the hearing.

It’s bad around the country. Those 2020 numbers from New Mexico are worse than the national averages, Citizens Disability shows, but only by a little.

(Chart by Citizens Disability)

Large bureaucracies like HSD have a hard time accommodating folks who need more help than just someone telling them to fill out a form and come back to the benefits office, Gardner said.

“People with brain injury in particular have a hard time, you know, complying with (those requirements),” he said.

Gardner said he’s concerned about discrimination being built into a Medicaid program that is supposed to serve people who need home- and community-based services due to their disability. 

How do we get there?

Going into the office to sort out his case was difficult, Morse said, because the risk of seizures makes it practically impossible to drive. The only way he was able to buy food and do errands was because Goodwill also provided him with a caregiver.

“If you can get to the Medicaid offices, it’s a lot easier than having the paperwork sent out or mail in,” he said. “But you can’t get around anywhere. You can’t get to doctor’s appointments. Even if you have SNAP benefits, you literally can’t go buy food.”

Morse said he lost his caseworker from Goodwill Industries in 2020, he said, because they ran out of funding for the program. The state should provide more funding for case management programs like it, he said. 

The state’s existing brain injury service fund is reserved for people who are in extremely dire circumstances, who are on their own and completely broke or who have much more debilitating conditions than his.

Morse said because the income and physical requirements to get the benefits are too stringent and don’t take into account the details of medical conditions like his, these kinds of social programs are set up to fail.

RESOURCES

Center for Development and Disability Information Network

University of New Mexico

2300 Menaul Boulevard NE

Albuquerque, N.M., 87107

Toll-free: (800) 827-6380

Website: cdd.unm.edu/infonet

The CDD Information Network strives to provide high quality library services, as well as connections to community resources.  It provides a wide array of disability-related materials and services for individuals with disabilities, families, healthcare professionals, school personnel, advocates, case managers, and others. 

The Ability Center

715 E. Idaho Avenue, Building 3E

Las Cruces, N.M. 88001

Phone: (575) 526-5016

Toll-free: (800) 376-4372

Fax: (575) 526-1202

Website: www.theabilitycenter.org

 The mission of the Ability Center is to provide necessary support services for persons with disabilities that promote their independence and full integration into community life as active, equal citizens.

Brain Injury Alliance of New Mexico

7005 Prospect Place NE

Albuquerque, NM  87110

Phone: (505) 292-7414

Toll-free: 1-888-292-7415

Website: http://www.braininjurynm.org

The BIANM works to provide accurate, up-to-date information and support to persons with brain injury, professionals, and family members seeking services.  The BIANM provides information on basic aspects of brain injury, education about services for people with brain injury, and hosts educational workshops.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.

Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.

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