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State Health And Human Services Secretary Apologizes to Legislators

Aldona Vos, DHHS
North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services

North Carolina’s Secretary of Health and Human Services apologized to state lawmakers in a lengthy committee meeting yesterday in Raleigh.

Secretary Aldona Wos said her office is investigating the root cause of a privacy breach that resulted in about 49,000 Medicaid cards being sent to the wrong households. And she said officials are looking into an apparent backlog of around 30 thousand needy families who qualify for food stamps.

In yesterday’s hearing at the legislature, Wos appeared perfectly composed but contrite before state lawmakers:

I deeply apologize for the impact that this has caused to the citizens of the state. First and foremost, I firmly believe as Secretary, that it is my obligation to ensure that the children and the families we serve receive their health care and their needs to be met in a protected and secure environment.

Wos told legislators that her department is moving quickly to issue new ID numbers to the children qualifying for Medicaid who didn’t receive their cards. She stressed that Social Security numbers were not included, and that children’s access to care wasn’t affected. Wos blamed that mishap on human error. But in general, she says, her department has encountered major hurdles from day one of this administration:

We were faced when we arrived with two huge IT projects that were underway that the state had already invested tens of millions of dollars to develop. We had a hard deadline to meet the deliverables of the Affordable Care Act. And we had a Medicaid system that was not working for the people that it served.

One of those huge IT projects Wos referred to is called NC FAST. It’s used to process food stamp claims and eligibility. Federal and state data show a backlog of around thirty thousand families who waited longer than a month to receive those benefits. In December, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a letter to the state health department, threatening to cut funding for food stamps unless the problem was resolved. Wos says DHHS won't let that happen:

We are working very closely with our county partners, and I thank them for their hard work. We have been very transparent about our challenges in NC Fast. We have been in constant communication with our county DSS directors.

Wos and other DHHS officials have said that county social services workers have been overloaded and that’s part of the reason why benefits aren’t being processed as quickly. They say they’re working to help counties handle the backlog. However, lawmakers were skeptical, asking why they didn’t hear about the USDA’s warning letter until a Charlotte TV station aired a story about it.

Democratic Senator Floyd McKissick is from Durham:

I’m trying to understand why no one within the agency came back to us to tell us that this was a red flag that had come up that needed to be resolved expeditiously so that we didn’t have to find out about it through some source other than your agency.

Wos replied that her department has been in continuous touch with the USDA about the issue, and that DHHS sent out copies of that letter to county social service agencies. Another health official explained he thinks as many as half of the food stamp recipients who’re listed in the official numbers may be duplicates because of the system’s complications. Senate minority leader Martin Nesbitt of Asheville asked why someone hadn’t figured that out before and fixed it:

I was absolutely startled when I heard the explanation that the numbers that we’ve been sending to USDA up to half of them are duplicates. Uh, that isn’t rocket science. That’s not hard. You look and see if the same name’s in there twice.

Nesbitt says he finds it strange that no one has even looked yet. But someone will have to fix glitches like this. NC Fast isn’t just used to process food stamp benefits- it’s also intended for a variety of other benefit programs that low-income North Carolinians depend on.

Jessica Jones covers both the legislature in Raleigh and politics across the state. Before her current assignment, Jessica was given the responsibility to open up WUNC's first Greensboro Bureau at the Triad Stage in 2009. She's a seasoned public radio reporter who's covered everything from education to immigration, and she's a regular contributor to NPR's news programs. Jessica started her career in journalism in Egypt, where she freelanced for international print and radio outlets. After stints in Washington, D.C. with Voice of America and NPR, Jessica joined the staff of WUNC in 1999. She is a graduate of Yale University.
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