Policy Watch Investigates

DHHS’ Wos apologizes for problems, then blames Obamacare

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While offering an apology Tuesday to lawmakers for her agency’s most recent missteps, North Carolina’s Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos laid partial blame for the errors on the country’s new health care act.

“The implementation of the Affordable Care Act is creating a massive issue in the state of North Carolina,” Wos said in her opening comments Tuesday in Raleigh at a health oversight committee. “Frankly, DHHS is struggling.”

Wos, a Greensboro physician who was a significant fundraiser during Republican Gov. Pat McCory’s campaign, briefed lawmakers on the most recent issues – the department’s mailing of nearly 50,000 children’s Medicaid cards to the wrong addresses in violation of federal privacy laws and the disclosure last week that federal funding for the state’s beleaguered food stamps is at risk.

“My expectation is that we get it right 100 percent of the time,” Wos said about the Medicaid card mix-up. “We did not meet that expectation.”

Wos, arguably more than any other member of the McCrory Administration, has been a lighting rod for criticism for her management of the massive state agency over the last year. Negative attention has come her way for the agency’s hiring of young political operatives and associates at high salaries and contracts, as well as the troubled launches of new information technology projects that led to thousands unable to receive food stamps and delayed payments across the state to medical providers that treat Medicaid patients.

Several Democratic legislators have called for her ouster.

McCrory has reiterated his support of Wos on several occasions, saying that she inherited a troubled agency that had been poorly managed by previous administrations.

“There’s been 10 years of operational neglect – not only in that department, but others,” McCrory said last week, according to the News & Observer. “You can’t fix that in one year.”

But Wos’ explanations Tuesday did little to appease critical Democratic lawmakers.

“It hurts the credibility and the integrity of the agency,” said state Sen. Floyd McKissick, a Durham Democrat, about lawmakers learning from media last week about the USDA problems. He added, “I feel like we were kept in the dark.”

Wos told lawmakers her department was transparent, but neither lawmakers nor legislature fiscal staff were aware until last week that the U.S. Department of Agriculture had threatened to take away funding for what the federal agency described as a “completely unacceptable.”

That letter became public last week when news outlets including N.C. Policy Watch reported the funding threat.

“These delays are completely unacceptable and a serious failure on the part of North Carolina,” wrote Donald Arnette, a regional administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s food and nutritional safety division in the letter to Wos.  “We have grave concern for the low income people of North Carolina who are waiting for assistance.”

Wayne Black, the head of the agency’s social services division, said at Tuesday’s hearing that as many as half of the 30,000 households DHHS reported not receiving food stamps in December may be repetitive applications, meaning the backlog may be as small as 15,000. The agency, however, hasn’t been able to come up with any firm numbers of how many households are currently waiting for food stamps, he said.

When describing the food stamps issues, Wos told lawmaker that USDA officials were concerned about what was happening at the county level.

“The USDA is concerned about the timeline of our counties in processing food stamp applications,” she said. “Our first priority is to make sure North Carolina families are receiving their food stamps so that when they go to the grocery stores they can actually buy food.”

State Sen. Martin Nesbitt, a Buncombe County Democrat, said he was alarmed that DHHS leaders didn’t outline exactly how they were going to address the food stamps delays and other issues.

“I just don’t see any progress,” he said. “What I’m wanting is a plan of action to fix it.”

Republican lawmakers have been less critical of Wos than their Democratic colleagues, citing the natural challenges that come with running an agency with 18,000 employees.

State Sen. Jeff Tarte, a Cornelius Republican who works in the health care analytics industry, told N.C. Policy Watch that he sees Wos and her staff addressing the complicated problems but also failing to communicate their progress with the larger public.

“Ninety percent of the issue is communication right now,” he said.

He also said it’s not helpful to blame problems on past administrations, with a Republican governor going into the second year of his administration and a legislature that’s been in GOP control since 2012.

“At some point, we’re large and in charge,” he said

Questions? Comments? Reporter Sarah Ovaska can be reached at (919) 861-1463 or sarah@ncpolicywatch.com.

Photo: Screen grab from WRAL.com streaming video.

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