by Chris Fitzsimon
If it is true that the first step toward solving a problem is admitting that you have one, the scandals and mismanagement at the Department of Health and Human Services will not be ending any time soon.
The day after embattled DHHS Secretary Aldona Wos and her top deputies struggled to answer pointed questions by state lawmakers about questionable raises for former campaign workers and a flawed Medicaid claims processing system, Governor Pat McCrory told a television reporter that he was “very proud” of Wos.
Many lawmakers in McCrory’s own political party don’t seem so proud. Republican Senator Tommy Tucker told Wos that it was tough to hear that she had hired somebody one year out of college with an English degree and was paying him $85,000 when teachers with five years of experience are making $30,000 a year.
Wos has come under fire for hiring two 24-year olds who worked on McCrory’s campaign for top jobs at DHHS and giving both of them big raises last spring, not long after McCrory issued a memo calling for a salary freeze.
Wos defended her questionable hires and pay scales and at one point told the committee the work of the 24-year-olds at the department was “monumental,” a phrase not generally associated with a press secretary, the job of one of the former campaign workers.
Neither Wos nor her staff could explain why her former chief of staff received a severance payment of $37,000 after working for only a month. She said it was a “separation agreement” not a severance package but offered no explanation for why it was paid.
Wos and her lieutenants also defended the shoddy performance of NC TRACKS, the new system to process Medicaid claims, saying it was improving and going smoother than similar rollouts in other states.
That came as news to the medical providers at the hearing, many of whom said they were experiencing huge delays in reimbursements that were threatening the survival of their practices.
An official with the Cape Fear Cape Fear Valley Health System said NC TRACKS has denied payments of $4 million worth of chemotherapy drugs. It certainly doesn’t sound like things are improving very much.
But that’s always the message from Wos and other DHHS officials. Everything is going well and they are right and you are wrong. Wos said she stood by the response to a state Medicaid audit she signed earlier in the year, even though a report from N.C. Health News found that the audit response was changed, in direct contradiction of the facts, to support the administration’s claim that Medicaid was broken and therefore needed to be privatized.
Virtually nothing is ever wrong according to Wos. The few times she has ever acknowledged problems, it was only to blame them on the Perdue administration.
That didn’t fly this week. Republican Senator Jeff Tarte told Wos that the flaws in paying medical providers for the services they perform were not the responsibility of the past administration. “This is ours, we own it,” Tarte said.
A microcosm of what is happening at DHHS these days came when department officials were asked how much money had been spent on emergency or hardship payments to medical practices because of problems with the billing and payment system.
The Chief Information Officer for DHHS said it was $65 million. Another official said $56 million and the Chief Financial Officer said it was $15 million. There’s a senior staff on the same page, well at least within $50 million of each other.
Most of the news accounts of the contentious meeting reported that lawmakers were not satisfied with the answers they received from Wos and other DHHS officials.
That’s true, the answers were confusing, defensive and often seemed detached from reality.
But even more troubling is that the Governor of North Carolina found the performance praiseworthy. He is apparently happy with the way things are going, and proud of Secretary Wos—which makes you wonder about his judgment even more than hers.
—Chris Fitzsimon is executive director of N.C. Policy Watch, an independent project of the N.C. Justice Center.