As resignation calls mount, McCrory stands firmly with DHHS’ Wos

jfrank@newsobserver.com cjarvis@newsobserver.comJanuary 10, 2014 

Gov. Pat McCrory, left, with DHHS Secretary Aldona Wos during a January 2013 press conference.

ETHAN HYMAN — ETHAN HYMAN - 2013 NEWS AND OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

— Gov. Pat McCrory continued to stand by the head of his state health agency Friday, amid Democrats’ mounting calls for her ouster in the latest controversy to hit the administration.

The governor’s office released a statement of support for Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos after the Legislative Black Caucus simultaneously held five news conferences around the state calling for McCrory to immediately replace her.

“The governor has confidence that Secretary Wos and her team are working hard to ensure that those who need benefits receive benefits,” spokesman Ryan Tronovitch said in a statement. “Another gimmicky press scheme from the extreme left won’t help solve the problem.”

McCrory met with members of the black caucus numerous times last year.

His remarks came after a week in which troubles at the state health agency overshadowed his message about the state’s improving economy and threatened to spoil a reset at the one-year mark of his term. McCrory made fixing what he called a “broken” government a priority and recently said he needed more time.

The Republican governor started the week answering questions about how the agency violated federal privacy laws when it sent 49,000 insurance cards for children to the wrong addresses, and days later the DHHS communications director announced he was leaving for a new job.

For months, problems have plagued the agency and spurred calls for Wos’ resignation. The latest controversy came after the black caucus discovered a Dec. 11 letter from the federal government threatening to sanction the state for failing to show it was taking steps to fix widespread problems with food stamp applications.

“What’s happening at DHHS now is embarrassing and humiliating to every person in the state of North Carolina,” said Rep. Yvonne Holley, a Raleigh Democrat at the news conference in the statehouse. “We’ve had not one, not two, not three but several repeated and consistent issues.”

Rep. Rosa Gill, another Raleigh Democrat, said, “DHHS is in a state of crisis. … It is time for the governor to step up and say enough is enough.”

The governor’s office said that the U.S. Department of Agriculture letter was nearly a month old and that the agency is taking corrective action.

DHHS officials also pushed back against the federal government’s letter, saying it overestimated the number of households affected by the delays in the computer software NC FAST that manages the state’s food stamp program.

“The numbers USDA is using is not an accurate depiction,” said Julie Henry, a DHHS spokeswoman.

In the letter, federal officials said the data showed more than 20,000 households experienced delays in receiving benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. But Henry said that includes people who received their food assistance for that month on time, even if the documents weren’t processed by the end of the previous month as the federal government requires.

Henry could not provide a number illustrating how many people are experiencing delays in getting the food assistance each month but acknowledged delays continue to plague the new system. “I’m not going to say everybody gets their benefits on time all of the time and there are not problems,” she said.

In the state’s response to the federal government, Henry said the agency hopes to have the backlog cleared by March.

A legislative oversight committee is scheduled to meet Tuesday, and the latest problems will factor prominently into the meeting, lawmakers said.

Rep. Jim Fulghum, a Raleigh Republican, said the issues raised in the USDA letter concerned him. “They said they were taking care of it,” he said of agency leaders. “I didn’t know it was as big a problem as it appears to have been.”

But Fulghum said his confidence is “not really” waning in Wos. “I frankly think she has the hardest job,” he said Friday. “I don’t know how any human being could manage this situation.”

Frank: 919-829-4698

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