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State Lawmakers Grill Health And Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos

NC General Assembly, DHHS, Secretary Aldona Wos
Jessica Jones

The head of the state’s Department of Health and Human Services, Aldona Wos, and other department leaders were grilled by lawmakers at an oversight committee meeting Tuesday in Raleigh.

Lawmakers and some members of the public questioned the department’s hiring policies, new payment systems and future plans for the state’s Medicaid program.  Wos fielded tough questions from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle all day.

The hardest ones concerned high paying jobs for young political hires in the department and expensive hourly rates paid to consultants. Democratic Rep. Beverly Earle of Charlotte asked Wos about Thomas Adams, who was hired as the department’s chief of staff in March. He left after only one month, with a send off of $37,000.

Earle said, "Exempt employees don’t qualify for severance pay, so could you please explain to me how he was able to draw a severance pay?" Vos replied, "Representative, he did not receive severance pay."

Earle then asked, "Well, what was the 37 thousand dollars for?"

"That was separation pay," replied Wos.

Upon further questions, the Secretary deferred to her department’s head of HR. He said the payment was mistakenly labeled severance pay and should be called a separation or settlement agreement, but Earle said she wanted more information from Secretary Wos.

"I feel like we have a right to ask the secretary direct questions and get a direct answer. She made these decisions and I think somebody needs to be held accountable. I think there’s a responsibility to report or to give us an explanation," said Earle.

That was the spirit of yesterday’s oversight hearing, which started at eight and lasted well past 5 o’clock. Both Democrats and Republicans peppered Wos and her deputies with questions about the direction the department is headed in. Republican Sen. Tommy Tucker of Union County asked whether officials plan to follow through with a proposal to allow private companies to take over the state’s 13 billion dollar Medicaid program: 

"Madam Secretary, dispel the rumor then, are we or are we not looking at privatizing Medicaid in the state?"

"Sir, you’re asking me without having all the data available or analysis to answer the question," said Wos. "I think that’s not fair to you or to the citizens."

Wos ducked the question despite the fact that she and the governor held a press conference earlier this year touting the virtue of moving Medicaid to managed care. That may have something to do with the resignation of her former Medicaid director, Carol Steckel, to take a job with a managed care company. Lawmakers also brought up an article based on a Freedom of Information Act request published by North Carolina Health News. The article says Wos and Steckel made strategic edits to a report about the state’s current Medicaid program to make it seem like administration costs are very expensive, when they’re really not.

Democratic Sen. Martin Nesbitt of Asheville says the news that leaders could be using faulty statistics to advocate for a new Medicaid program is very concerning.   

"Apparently when you take all the administrative costs and add em in for all the states we’re one of the lowest, instead of being 38 percent above everybody else," said Nesbitt. "Well, that’s going to dramatically change your opinion about whether the system’s broke and you start over again, it tells me there might be a baby in that bathwater you’re fixin' to throw out."

Wos said she hadn’t read the article. Lawmakers also spent several hours yesterday exploring glitches with NC Fast, the processing system that’s responsible for getting food stamp recipients their benefits.

But they reserved their ire for NCTracks, the new system the state uses to reimburse health care providers who treat Medicaid patients. Many hospitals and private practices haven’t been reimbursed for claims they’ve filed under the system, and their bills are piling up. That’s true for Donna Mosley, an office administrator for an OB/GYN practice in Burlington. She says when she realized the practice couldn’t make payroll because of unpaid Medicaid claims, she drove to the Department of Health and Human Services headquarters and refused to leave.

"What I told them was you can call security or you can call the Raleigh police department, but I’m not leaving until I get a check," said Mosley.

Mosley says she got an emergency check to meet payroll. She was able to resubmit some claims, but there are still almost two months’ worth of claims the system isn’t taking into account. She says she can’t wait for that money much longer.

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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.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.
Shawn Wen joined the staff of The State of Things in March 2012 and served as associate producer until February 2014.