Raleigh, N.C. — Members of the Legislative Black Caucus said Wednesday that they are fed up with problems at the state Department of Health and Human Services and want some answers from Secretary Aldona Wos.
The group said they chose the 9/11 anniversary for a news conference because it has become a national day of service, and they said the best public service they can provide is to ensure DHHS is working properly for North Carolina residents.
Lawmakers cited reports of large raises given to former staffers of Gov. Pat McCrory's campaign who now work at DHHS, hefty salaries pulled in by Republican insiders who work as consultants to the agency and continued problems plaguing computer systems that provide food stamp benefits to needy families and process Medicaid claims and reimburse health care providers.
"Enough is enough," said Rep. Garland Pierce, D-Scotland.
Pierce, chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, said the group has sent a six-page letter to McCrory and Wos to answer their concerns. The letter includes more than 30 questions on various topics.
Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, said he was frustrated that Wos decided to defend paying a man who works for her husband more than $200,000 over six months for consulting services by sending an email to only 17 lawmakers – all but one are Republicans – instead of addressing all 170 members of the General Assembly.
"That's a matter of integrity. That's a matter of credibility," McKissick said, saying placing GOP operatives in plum positions smacks of the pay-to-play politics that Republicans have criticized for years.
DHHS spokesman Ricky Diaz said criticism over hiring and pay is largely unfounded.
"She had to very quickly bring in experts," Diaz said of Wos, "and we're very proud of the fact that, overall, DHHS' base payroll is $23 million less than it was one year ago."
"Cost savings are fine, but the duty is to provide the services to the people of North Carolina, and that's not happening," House Minority Leader Larry Hall said.
Hall, D-Durham, said the McCrory administration has turned DHHS into a "private pocketbook for them to dip into for friends and former campaign workers."
Last month, he asked for a legislative investigation into the salaries issue during the recent special session of the General Assembly, but the Republican leadership never scheduled any oversight committee hearings and Wos never responded to his request.
"The department appears to be in somewhat of a shambles," Hall said Wednesday. "We want to know what's the plan going forward. When can we expect the return on the investment and the expenditures?"
Beyond the big money for friends of Wos and McCrory, Sen. Earline Parmon, D-Forsyth, said she is most troubled by the fact that many North Carolina families are going hungry because DHHS managers haven't addressed problems with the NC FAST benefits system. Likewise, she said, problems with the NCTracks system are forcing some small health care firms to shut down because they aren't getting paid for Medicaid services they have provided.
"Our citizens are suffering," Parmon said. "We've had too many press releases, too many telephone calls and too many press conferences. It's time for action."
Diaz said the administration inherited significant issues, such as outdated systems and information technology projects that were way over budget.
"I understand why there's criticism because we're taking on some of the biggest challenges in state government," he said. "The department was absolutely a mess coming in."
Republican Senate leader Phil Berger pledged last week to work with Democrats on problems plaguing the computer systems.