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N.C. Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos told lawmakers today that her agency may face problems clearing the last 2,000 cases of a massive backlog in emergency food assistance cases in time for a federal deadline.

“It will be extremely difficult and the stakes are very high,” Wos said in a legislative health oversight committee Wednesday. “There are no easy solutions are we move forward.”

Wos told lawmakers that 1,975 cases remained in the food stamps backlog.

A March 31 deadline was set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in response to a massive backlog that rose in December to more than 20,000 households waiting weeks to months for emergency food assistance.  The backlog stemmed from a steady increase in recent years for assistance and county-level social service workers encountering glitches and other problems with benefits-delivery system called N.C. FAST (Families Accessing Services through Technology).

Though Wos told lawmakers today, as she had in last month’s oversight hearing, that things were improving, there are still those going without. Because of privacy laws surrounding government assistance like food stamps, it’s unclear if  scenarios like those of Maria Best, a Greensboro woman who has been waiting since December for food stamps,  are being reflected in DHHS caseload data.

We first spoke with Best, a 72-year-old and recent breast cancer survivor  living on a limited income, for a Feb. 12 article about the food stamps delays.Reached today, Best said she has yet to get any assistance, and has been waiting for more than three months for help. The last time she received food stamps was in November.

“It’s getting really tough,” she said, adding that she’s had to limit putting gas in her car and has been living off odds and ends in her pantry and freezer.

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Aldona WosAn editorial in this morning’s Winston-Salem Journal pulls few punches in characterizing the latest incident of political cronyism in Gov. Pat McCrory’s embattled Department of Health and Human Services and demanding a full accounting. That incident, of course (as reported and expanded upon here and here earlier this week by N.C. Policy Watch) was the department’s bestowal of $310,000 in pay to a “contractor” whose permanent job just happens to be working for the private company owned by the husband of DHHS Secretary Aldona Wos (and whose main work product during the period in question seems to have been to recommend cutting a number of safety net programs). This is from the editorial:

“The latest manifestation of Wos’ closed-government philosophy arose in news reports about Joe Hauck. Wos hired him as a private consultant and paid $310,000 for 11 months of work. But so far, it’s hard to tell what he did for that money. Read More

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Joe Hauck Source: LinkedIn

Joe Hauck
Source: LinkedIn

The Associated Press had this report over the weekend about the slim amount of work product taxpayers received in exchange for $310,000 paid to a contractor with personal connections to N.C. Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos.

Joe Hauck, who has since returned to his previous job working for a company owned by Wos’ husband, was one of several controversial expensive hires and personal services contracts Wos, a Greensboro physician and Republican fundraiser, used to build her executive team.

In the year Wos has led DHHS, several of her top hires have departed, including then-24-year-old McCrory campaign worker Ricky Diaz who earned $85,000 a year as  Wos’ communications director, and Carol Steckel, who worked as the state’s Medicaid director for eight months before leaving her $210,000-a-year job. Wos’ former chief-of-staff Thomas Adams received a $37,000 settlement payment after spending just a month on the job, despite state hiring practices that bar severance packages in such situations.

NC HHS Sec. Aldona Wos

NC HHS Sec. Aldona Wos

AP reporter Michael Biesecker first requested records related to Hauck in September and recently received a pair of memorandums from the agency no longer than three double-spaced pages as evidence of the 11 months Hauck spent working at the state agency.

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NC HHS Sec. Aldona Wos

NC HHS Sec. Aldona Wos

Yesterday, Governor Pat McCrory’s DHHS Secretary, Aldona Wos, unveiled the administration’s long-awaited reform plan for Medicaid.  One of McCrory’s favorite talking points on Medicaid has been how “broken” the system is and how he’s going to “fix” it.  Setting aside the past year of missteps in which McCrory and Wos did more than any Governor and Secretary in history to discredit and cause problems for NC’s award-winning Medicaid program, what does the administration’s plan yesterday tell us about the future prospects of Medicaid and health care for the poor in NC?  Here’s my take:

1. Surrender:  The Governor completely surrendered by backing down from his former big plans to sell off substantial parts of the Medicaid program to private, out-of-state insurance companies.  The proposal yesterday to use “Accountable Care Organizations” or ACOs is simply, at its core, a new way to pay existing or new networks of doctors, hospitals and other health care providers.  Paying health providers as a group for each illness a patient gets rather than piecemeal for every test and procedure is supposed to get providers focused on quality and efficiency, especially when payments go up if patients are healthier. ACOs represent gradual evolution in health care and not “major reform.”

2.  Missing the boat on Medicaid expansion: The Governor also made it clear that he has no intention of solving the coverage gap for the 500,000 poor North Carolina citizens who would be eligible for Medicaid coverage if he led the charge to expand Medicaid using the billions of dollars in federal money available to our state. Conservative governors and legislators around the country – whether in New Hampshire or Utah – are coming up with innovative solutions to cover their citizens with all the new federal money available.  By leaving an expansion proposal out of his plans to change Medicaid, our Governor is renouncing any claim to national moderate leadership on this issue, leaving billions of federal tax dollars collected from North Carolinians to go to states that do expand and hurting hundreds of thousands of his own constituents.

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The state’s health agency revealed its proposal yesterday of how to it wants to overhaul the state’s Medicaid system, giving a broad outline that appeased doctor and hospital groups and backed away from earlier promises of a privatized system.

In a meeting held Wednesday for a Medicaid reform advisory group, N.C. Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos and her staff said they would, with the legislature’s blessing, move to a  model using Accountable Care Organizations (which can be groups of medical practices or hospital systems) to manage Medicaid patients physical health needs.

DHHS Sec. Aldona Wos

DHHS Sec. Aldona Wos

“What we are presenting today is a realistic and achievable plan that puts patients first, helps create a sustainable Medicaid program, and builds on what we have in North Carolina,” Wos said, in a press release about Wednesday’s meeting. “This proposal represents a fundamental improvement in how the state delivers Medicaid.”

Wos will present the plan March 17 to lawmakers, any changes will also need federal approval.

(Scroll down or click here to read the two-page handout on the proposal.)

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