Tense meeting with DHHS leader Wos leads to firing of NC's top dentist

lbonner@newsobserver.comSeptember 9, 2013 

Durham Bulls

Aldona Wos, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, right, and Gov. Pat McCrory talk Wednesday, April 3, 2013, about overhauling the state's Medicaid program by having managed care companies offer health care plans for poor children, the elderly and the disabled.

ETHAN HYMAN — ehyman@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

Dr. Rebecca King’s 35-year career with the state ended last week when she was fired from her job as head of oral health at the state Department of Health and Human Services.

A tense meeting with DHHS Secretary Dr. Aldona Wos and other top staff over how to implement budget cuts helped usher King to her exit.

King released copies of her supervisor’s letters about her firing, along with her response. King said in an interview that she also believes her lack of cooperation in ferreting out hygienists who took vacation time to lobby legislators against cuts in oral health contributed to her getting fired.

Wos did not respond to a request for an interview. Danny Staley, acting director of the public heath division, directed questions to the department’s public information office.

Department spokesman Ricky Diaz said the department was not looking to punish hygienists who went to legislators about oral health. He provided a copy of the dismissal letter King gave reporters, but he said he could not comment further on a personnel matter.

The exchange of letters offers a glimpse into DHHS under Wos, where personnel and salary decisions have overshadowed its work administering Medicaid, overseeing mental health services and guarding public health.

The change in administration from Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue to Republican Gov. Pat McCrory came with predictable turnover in top offices.

But the agency has also added high-paying positions for state employees and for others through personal services contracts. King’s former supervisor, Dr. Laura Gerald, resigned her job as public health director in late July, citing differences with the agency’s direction and policies.

King’s firing also comes as state workers are increasingly worried about their job security. In recent weeks many have learned that their positions are now exempt from civil service protections, meaning they can be removed from their job without cause. McCrory increased “at will” positions at DHHS nearly fivefold under state laws that allowed him to designate more of those positions throughout state government.

King said she had been an at-will employee for several years. Staley laid out reasons for her dismissal, but if she had been removed without cause, the state would have had to offer her another job at the same pay.

Meeting ‘did not go well’

King met with Wos and others agency officials on Aug. 19 to talk about how to absorb a 30 percent budget cut, according to the documents.

The state budget eliminates 15 jobs in the section. Before the final budget agreement, the Senate had proposed shutting down the section.

“Their perception was that I was challenging,” King said in an interview. “I was nervous.” King said she wanted to provide good information on how cutting her office 30 percent would affect services.

“I went back to the office and thought ‘that did not go well.’ I did not realize how badly it had gone.”

In an email to colleagues, King said Wos repeatedly interrupted her during their meeting. “I have never been treated with such disrespect in any work setting,” King said in the email.

“Even if I had deserved it, which I did not, no employee should be treated that way.”

The Oral Health Section provides dental services throughout the state. Hygienists screen children’s teeth, direct them to dentists and put sealants on the teeth of the youngest schoolchildren.

A group of hygienists went to the Legislative Building in June to ask lawmakers to spare their jobs after the Senate budget proposed eliminating the section.

King also provided July 9 emails exchanged with a personnel analyst asking about hygienists who were on leave the day hygienists went to the legislature.

King said the agency wanted her to ask hygienists if they went to the legislature about the budget cut.

“That question gave me the creeps,” King said in an interview. “It’s not my business what people do on vacation time.”

‘Extremely embarrassed’

Staley, who was named acting director of the public health division after Gerald resigned, sent King an Aug. 28 letter about meeting with him and a human resources representative about the decision to fire her, because she did not promptly provide ideas on dealing with the budget cut and based on her conduct in the meeting with Wos.

Staley, who has been with the public health division for a little more than two years, wrote in the letter that he was “extremely embarrassed” by King’s behavior, and that Rod Davis, the agency CFO thought “you were attempting to ‘...get (yourself) fired.’ ”

“You began you presentation by voicing your disagreement with the budget reduction,” Staley wrote. “You directed your comments to Secretary Wos in an accusatory and unprofessional manner. You stated that the ‘Department did not support the Oral Health Program and this reduction came on the recommendation from the Department.’ You stated the Secretary provided no support with the legislature to prevent the budget reduction from happening.”

King’s accusations prompted Wos to call legislative lobbyists to confirm that the agency supported the program, Staley wrote.

King replied with a letter to Staley apologizing if she appeared to be accusatory or unprofessional. “Perception is everything, but I did not feel that it was such and it was not meant as such,” she wrote.

“I disagree with your assessment that I have exhibited unacceptable personal conduct and unsatisfactory job performance, and that my actions were mean-spirited, unprofessional and not in keeping with maintaining harmony. I may suffer from over exuberance in my desire to provide the best services for the citizens for North Carolina.”

Bonner: 919-829-4821

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