North Carolina's DHHS wrongly feels no need to explain contracts

December 2, 2013 

Aldona Wos has seemed to march to her own drummer since becoming Gov. Pat McCrory’s secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services. The problem is, she doesn’t like to let anyone else, including the taxpayers, in on the tune.

Problems with Medicaid? A privatization plan for the $13 billion health care program for the poor and disabled is in the works, though the governor’s characterization of the program as broken is exaggerated. Management problems in DHHS? Wos has put political appointees in place whose main qualifications seem to be partisan loyalty to the governor.

And about these sole-source and personal services contracts for a number of individuals? No explanation offered.

As The N&O’s Joseph Neff reported, it appears those contracts amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars haven’t really passed customary muster. Most departments in state government require a written explanation when a contract is signed with a private person.

But a DHHS attorney says no “justification memos” have been found for a number of the deals. There’s just nothing there, and the attorney simply says the memos don’t exist.

Further, the attorney says that because the personal services contracts were for the office of the secretary, no justification is required. But no policy or regulation exempting the secretary was produced.

While it may be true that Republicans have not held the governor’s office and controlled the General Assembly at the same time in over 100 years, they need to understand that they don’t get to make up new rules as they go along.

And yet that’s exactly how they’re acting.

These contracts are not peanuts. Former GOP State Auditor Les Merritt has a contract deal that could be worth up to $312,000 a year. Another contract could pay a vice president from a company owned by Wos’s husband $310,000. Dennis Barry, a former health system president, got a two-month $18,000 contract to evaluate DHHS’s human resources operations, and an adviser on Medicaid reform is getting a contract worth up to $224,000 a year.

That Wos, a wealthy major Republican fundraiser, would hand out such contracts without even feeling a need to explain why and follow customary procedures is preposterous. But the secretary declines even to comment.

It’s the height of irony that Gov. Pat McCrory, who ran for election talking about how he was going to fix a “broken” state government, would apparently be oblivious to the DHHS goings-on. Republicans were going to repair the economy and create jobs, but the state still lags behind in job creation, and the governor seems unawareof what’s going on in his own Cabinet.

Certainly he and other Republican leaders have long talked about “waste” under those free-spending Democrats, which is why, presumably, they had to tighten the screws on social programs and public education.

Can’t waste money, no, siree. That just won’t do. Got to watch the state’s dollars.

But this explosion of personal service contracts, awarded on the say of the secretary with apparently little or no review – and certainly without any apparent need to justify these expenditures to taxpayers – makes a mockery of all that belt-tightening talk. At DHHS, it appears the belt has been loosened like that of a hungry uncle after Thanksgiving dinner.

These contracts represent an amount of money far beyond the salaries of public employees who are paid to oversee departments. Why that is so demands an explanation.

And Secretary Wos needs to understand that hers is a public job and that the people of North Carolina are her employers. She owes them an explanation for her appointments, her contracts and her policy decisions. That is not an option; it is a clear obligation.

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