DHHS Secretary Wos defends tenure amid latest employees' pay issues

lbonner@newsobserver.comSeptember 20, 2013 

Dr. Aldona Wos, head of the embattled state Department of Health and Human Services, defended her job performance Friday, including salary and hiring decisions that have led to calls for investigations.

Shortly after the interview with News 14 Carolina, another DHHS pay story erupted. An employee who worked as Wos’ chief of staff for one month was given a $37,000 settlement after he left. The payment was approved by state budget director Art Pope on July 30.

Tom Adams, a lobbyist with the N.C. Captive Insurance Association, was hired at a salary of $155,000 a year, and worked for Wos in March.

Spokesmen for Wos and Gov. Pat McCrory could not be reached Friday night. McCrory vigorously defended Wos in interviews this week.

The Progressive Pulse, a blog run by the left-leaning N.C. Justice Center, first reported the payment.

In a July 29 letter to Pope, Wos wrote that the department had signed “a mutual release and settlement agreement” with Adams “to settle any and all potential outstanding claims and obligations arising from his employment and separation from the Department, effective April 1.”

Dana Cope, executive director of the State Employees Association of North Carolina, said Friday that he’s going to ask to meet with McCrory next week to request an investigation into DHHS and its employment and pay practices.

“Obviously, there’s something going on in that agency,” Cope said.

“I’ve never seen an exempt employee ever get a severance payment. Particularly one who’s only worked 30 days in a 100 percent political-appointee job.”

Wos has been under fire for weeks for personnel decisions that include hiring the vice president of her husband’s company on a lucrative personal services contract, and assigning high-level jobs to a pair of 24-year-olds.

In the interview with News 14 Carolina, Wos referenced a few new employees hired in at-will positions who weren’t a good fit for their jobs, but she did not go into details.

The department, which employs about 17,000, has lost 1,700 employees since January and hired 1,400 people since the beginning of the year, she said.

Wos said she had to start from scratch building a leadership team because most top posts were vacant.

She also had tough decisions to make early that included pushing ahead with the expensive and long-delayed Medicaid billing system and the computer system that distributes food stamps. Both have been the focus of complaints.

“I decided that what this state needs is bold and decisive action and attack the hardest problems first,” she said.

• On the 24-year-olds – DHHS spokesman Ricky Diaz, who is paid $85,000, and chief policy adviser Matt McKillip, who makes $87,500 – Wos said they were worth even more for the work they do.

“Actually, it should be more, but that option does not exist,” she said. “Based on their responsibilities and portfolio, absolutely.”

Wos said she worked with Diaz and McKillip during the campaign and the transition.

“I feel 100 percent confident that they are doing the right jobs and that they were the best people for the job,” Wos said.

• Wos said hiring Joe Hauck, a vice president with her husband’s company, on a personal services contract was not a conflict of interest. The state has paid Hauck more than $228,000 since January, and the payments could reach $310,000 before the contract expires in November. That’s more than the top state employee at DHHS makes in a year.

It was important to have someone with the talent and organizational skills to reorganize the department, Wos said, and people with those skills are not traditionally found inside government. Hauck took a leave of absence from New Breed Logistics, where Wos’ husband is CEO, to work at DHHS.

“Because of the fact that I know Joe for many years, I have watched him and watched the fact that he’s competent. I trust him 1000 percent,” she said. “Absolutely no conflict.”

• It was important to push ahead with long-delayed computer systems, she said. The state is working hard to help work out problems for health care providers having trouble getting paid for treating Medicaid patients and for people who are going hungry because their food stamps are delayed.

“Even one person not getting the appropriate food is really a human crisis,” she said. The state has sent 161 computer experts to work alongside county social services workers, she said.

Sen. Martin Nesbitt, an Asheville Democrat, said mismanagement at DHHS is hurting people the agency is supposed to help.

Doctors may end up dropping Medicaid patients if they have trouble getting paid to treat them, said Nesbitt, the Senate minority leader.

“We could destroy the Medicaid system,” he said.

The interview is online at capitaltonight.news14.com.

Bonner: 919-829-4821

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