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The head of North Carolina’s troubled health and human services department told lawmakers Tuesday that moving the Medicaid program out from under her purview to a stand-alone agency would “be against common sense.”

“Absolutely not,” said N.C. Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos in a response to a question about whether moving the $13 billion Medicaid outside of her domain would make things easier on the agency.

“To separate parts of [DHHS functions] out to the department will actually go backwards,” she said.

DHHS Sec. Aldona Wos

DHHS Sec. Aldona Wos

Wos made her comments Tuesday at a legislative oversight committee hearing. It also comes as lawmakers consider whether to embark next year on an ambitious plan by Senate Republicans to move the state’s Medicaid program to a standalone agency reporting jointly to the governor and state lawmakers.

A special program evaluation committee recently formed to consider different scenarios for Medicaid, an entitlement program that provides health care for the poor seniors, children and disabled residents, is funded through a mix of federal and state dollars.

Lawmakers have for years voiced frustration with faulty budget forecasts and unexpected cost overruns within the Medicaid program. Several Republican politicians — including legislative leaders and Gov. Pat McCrory — have held up the forecasting roblems as reason why North Carolina should not expand its Medicaid program, a move that would tap federal money to provide healthcare for an estimated 400,000 North Carolinians unable to afford their own insurance.

Wos, a Greensboro physician and wealthy Republican fundraiser appointed by McCrory to lead the state’s largest agency in January 2013, had plenty of other tough topics to cover with Tuesday’s legislative oversight committee. The tense reception has become a routine scenario for Wos as she’s grappled with negative coverage over high-dollar personal contracts and raises for close associates, as well as major disruptions in the state’s Medicaid billing and food stamp dispersal systems.

On Tuesday, Wos and her staff faced questions about a $6.8 million no-bid contract given to a consulting firm Alvarez & Marshal to advise and manage the Medicaid program.

Wos told lawmakers that she needed to hire the firm because she didn’t have any staff able to manage the program properly as she and other agency staff were developing a comprehensive Medicaid reform plan.

“We had an emergency,” Wos said. “We had to figure out how to get our daily work done.”

State law requires most contracts to go through a bidding process, in order to keep costs down and to allow for competition in lucrative contracts. Wos credited the consulting firm’s work with allowing the Medicaid program to meet its budget this year, and return $63 million to the state’s general fund.

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The achievement gap between black and white students was narrowed in college classes that stressed “active learning” over lectures, according to a study published this week by a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill professor.

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Dr. Kelly Hogan Source: UNC-Chapel Hill

The New York Times had this article yesterday about the study conducted by UNC biology professor Kelly Hogan and Sarah Eddy of the University of Washington at Seattle.

The study found freshman students who were black or whose parents didn’t attend college had test scores rise (by an average of six points) when students took an introductory biology class taught through interactive methods — teamwork, in-class activities and online quizzes – over a class taught via lectures.

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The McCrory administration is looking to bolster North Carolina’s economy as it undergoes major changes in how it will recruit new employers to the state.

In a final meeting for the state’s economic development board, N.C. Commerce Sec. Sharon Decker told members Wednesday that she’s hoping to figure out a way to continue to attract businesses, even as the legislature declined to fund some of her priorities.

The state legislature ended its session earlier this month without funding a $20 million “closing fund” that Decker and Gov. Pat McCrory had asked for. But it did give its blessing to moving the state’s marketing and recruiting efforts to a public-private partnership, a setup that has had mixed results in other states.

The board for the new public-private economic development partnership is expected to meet this afternoon. The group hopes to be operational by early October.

State lawmakers also let a tax credit program for the film industry, which offered credits of approximately 25 cents for every $1 spent on big projects, to sunset at the end of the year. Lawmakers instead allocated $10 million for a modified grant program.

Decker said Wednesday that she’s already heard that several shows and film projects may be backing out of North Carolina because of the changes.

“The risk is significant,” Decker said, about the possibility of losing North Carolina film jobs.

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The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services announced this afternoon that an architect of a stalled Medicaid reform plan is leaving the state agency.

Margaret “Mardy” Peal, 43, was hired in August 2013 by Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos despite having been out of the work force for more than a decade, according to a News & Observer article published shortly after Peal’s hire.

The job was not posted, and was a newly created position to look at privatizing the state’s complex $13 billion Medicaid program, which is funded with a mix of state and federal dollars and provides health care for low-income children and their parents, seniors and disabled residents.

Peal, who has a master’s in health education and lectured at East Carolina University’s medical school on patient care in the late 1990s, had donated $1,250 to Gov. Pat McCrory’s campaign, according to the N&O article. She also organized the Eastern North Carolina chapter of the Tea Party.

She made $95,000 a year in her DHHS position to help the agency develop a reform proposal for the state’s $13 billion Medicaid program. Peal’s hire last year came while Wos was facing criticism for giving big raises to several inexperienced McCrory campaign staffers.

The agency, at the urging of doctor and other medical provider groups, ultimately proposed parceling out Medicaid health care responsibilities to accountable care organizations (ACOs) around the state but the agency plan failed to get the backing of leading Senate Republicans who wanted to take Medicaid out from under DHHS and open it up to bids from managed care companies.

In a statement, state Medicaid Director Dr. Robin Cummings thanked Peal for her work and emphasized that the state agency planned on pursuing its approach to Medicaid reform.

“Working with doctors, hospitals and other healthcare providers and stakeholders across the state, DHHS will continue to pursue our Medicaid Reform plan,” Cummings said, according to a written statement.

In her Aug. 25 resignation letter (click here to read), Peal wrote that she was grateful for the experience working at DHHS but an unspecified opportunity in the private sector would allow her to spend more time with family.

“At this point in my family’s life, it is necessary that I spend a greater percentage of my time with them,” Peal wrote. “An opportunity presented itself that would allow me more time at home, and I have chose to pursue it.”

 

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fergusonA North Carolina teacher has started a crowd sourcing effort to raise money for food banks in the St. Louis area, after schools in Ferguson, Missouri closed as a result of the unrest following the shooting death of unarmed teenager Mike Brown by a police officer.

Julianna Mendelsohn, who teaches at a school in Bahama in Durham County, started the cause #FeedFerguson Aug. 14 on the fundraising website Fundly, and more than $130,000 had been raised as of midday Wednesday.

She was concerned about children attending Ferguson schools who depend on the school’s free and reduced meals to eat.

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