Governor deflects blame for problems at DHHS

January 8, 2014 

The error was bad enough. The state Department of Health and Human Services on Dec. 30 sent out new Medicaid cards with the personal information of nearly 49,000 children to the wrong addresses. It had violated the children’s privacy, left them vulnerable to identity theft, raised the risk of Medicaid fraud and wasted taxpayer money.

But the response of the McCrory administration was even worse. Rather than admit the mistake, DHHS officials delayed announcing it for three days, finally issuing a news release after 5 p.m. last Friday.

Then on Monday, Gov. Pat McCrory made yet another defense of the generous contributor to his campaign whom he appointed as DHHS secretary, Aldona Wos. The governor said the mix-up wasn’t her fault. The blame, he said, belonged to Democrats who allowed DHHS to become dysfunctional during their long stay in power. He suggested that Wos’ problems with flawed computer systems, questionable hirings and firings, and wrong addresses are all reflective of the “broken” agency she inherited and is resolutely trying to fix.

“There’s been 10 years of operational neglect – not only in that department, but others,” McCrory said. “You can’t fix that in one year.”

This from the governor who proudly declares his willingness to “step on toes” when it comes to improving things in Raleigh. Wos’ toes apparently are exempt.

The stepping the governor should be doing is stepping up and taking responsibility, not only for this matter, but also for the rash of problems on the watch of the unqualified person he appointed to run an $18 billion department.

Instead, the governor made a joke about the matter. He said anyone who believes such a large and complex department could be fixed so quickly “has probably spent time in Colorado in the past week,” a reference to the newly legal sales of marijuana there.

What is happening at DHHS under Wos isn’t funny. She ignored warnings from the state auditor and launched a faulty computer system that has delayed payments to Medicaid providers. Another troubled DHHS computer system has held up food stamps. She has hired two 24-year-old McCrory campaign workers as top staff members and paid them each in excess of $85,000 while she has run off DHHS veterans. She has paid consultants and contractors outlandish sums, including $228,000 to a longtime employee of her husband’s for less than eight months’ work. Carol Steckel, whom Wos hired to fix the state’s “broken” Medicaid system, resigned as state Medicaid director after eight months.

Taxpayers and some of the state’s neediest people are being ill-served by Wos’ mismanagement, but the governor, astonishingly, cast her as the victim of others’ incompetence.

The absurdity of this defense was particularly apparent in the mailing fiasco. DHHS officials said they are still sorting out what happened. If that’s the case, how can the governor know that the mistake arose from inherited incompetence rather than from lapses directly attributable to decisions by Wos or one of her senior managers?

There’s good reason to suspect it’s the latter case. Not only is Wos incompetent as a secretary, her high-handed manner has driven away experienced employees. There are fewer people adept at running the daily operations of the complex agency. That opens the way for such errors as sending nearly 49,000 cards to the wrong addresses.

Nonetheless, Wos has ordered the DHHS human resources office to look into potential personnel action against the state employees involved in the incident. That review will be useless.

The responsible parties are exempt from consequences. Wos is shielded by the money she raised for McCrory. The governor is protected by his unwillingness to take responsibility. What’s broken at DHHS will take an election to fix.

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service