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A chance for some answers from DHHS

Chris Fitzsimon NC Policy Watch

October 4, 2013

One of the most frustrating aspects of the myriad of scandals at the troubled state Department of Health Human Services is that no one has offered much of an explanation for anything, not Secretary Aldona Wos, not her boss Gov. Pat McCrory, not the battalion of former McCrory campaign workers hired as communications staff and policy advisers in the department.


Wos rarely makes public appearances where there’s a chance for reporters to ask questions and on a couple of occasions where she was at a public event with the media attending, bodyguards blocked reporters from getting close to her.


McCrory has not said very much either, beyond blaming the media for asking questions about the scandals and standing by his embattled secretary.


That could all change Tuesday when the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Health and Services convenes for the first time since most of the scandals have come to light.


The meeting is scheduled from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and that may not be enough time to get to the bottom of things, but it ought to at least give lawmakers a chance to get some answers from Wos and her key lieutenants.


We still don’t know for example why the department gave a $37,000 severance payment to Wos’ former Chief of Staff Thomas Adams who left last spring after only a month on the job.


We don’t know why former State Auditor Les Merritt is being paid $312,000 a year as a contract employee to be the CFO of the Division of Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities, and Substance Abuse Services.


Why did Wos not hire a full-time CFO instead of hiring a contract employee at $312,000? And why has she paid a business associate of her husband $228,000 for eight months of work as an adviser? What sort of advice is he giving?


Then there are the two 24-year-old former McCrory campaign workers in top positions, despite no obvious background or qualifications for their jobs — and the anti-abortion tea party activist hired to help with efforts to privatize the state’s Medicaid program, an idea that doesn’t thrill important Republican legislative leaders.


Medicaid Director Carol Steckel, Wos’ highest profile hire to date, came to the department to head up the privatization effort, but she recently left after only eight months on the job to work for a Florida managed care company that may be interested in getting the state’s business.


What is the status of McCrory’s privatization push now that Steckel has resigned?


And maybe most importantly, what is the department doing to address the massive problems with the two new systems launched to process food stamps and payments to medical providers?


Many low-income families are turning to soup kitchens and food pantries as they wait for their long overdue food stamps and medical practices are taking out loans to stay afloat while many legitimate claims are being denied and reimbursements from the state are not being distributed.


McCrory likes to blame the Perdue Administration for the problems with both programs, but it was his DHHS that rolled them out and is now struggling to make them work.


And nobody in the Perdue Administration hired Les Merritt for $312,000 or turned the department into the landing area for former McCrory campaign workers.


And it is McCrory’s own appointee as secretary that is at the center of most of the controversy. If lawmakers on the oversight committee do their jobs Tuesday and live up to the name of their committee we may finally get some answers — bodyguards or not — that are long overdue.


Fitzsimon is the executive director NC Policy Watch.