Outgoing DHHS chief: Politics led to frustration
Posted January 31, 2012
Raleigh, N.C. — Lanier Cansler stepped down Tuesday as secretary of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, saying that he expects the frustration of running the state's largest agency to increase in an election year.
Cansler, who has headed DHHS since the beginning of Gov. Beverly Perdue's administration three years ago, announced Jan. 13 that he would leave at the end of the month to start a consulting business focusing on finding better ways for health care to work in North Carolina.
He said he's used to challenges – he was a four-term Republican lawmaker who has served for a Democratic governor. Still, reconciling the differences between the executive and legislative branches of government became tougher than ever in recent months.
"It does get frustrating whenever you're working on the issues and you get caught in the political contest," he said. "In each of their minds, I think what they're thinking is the best thing for the state, but there's great philosophical differences."
Republican legislative leaders and Perdue have been at odds in recent weeks, for example, over how to handle a growing budget hole at DHHS.
The agency's budget was cut by more than $350 million last summer, but difficulties in making those cuts – the federal government didn't approve of many moves – has left DHHS with a $150 million deficit. It's projected to grow to more than $240 million by fiscal 2012-13, which starts in July.
"I realize politics are always going to be there, but to the extent you can let the right decision rule the day rather than let politics rule the day, that's the goal, because that's when you can achieve the most for the state," Cansler said.
Throughout his tenure, Cansler also dealt with allegations of neglect and abuse at the state's psychiatric hospitals. Months before he took over, a patient at Cherry Hospital in Goldsboro fell and was left in a chair, neglected for nearly 24 hours before he died.
One of his first actions in 2009 was to establish a zero-tolerance policy for patient abuse, yet a May 2010 incident at Cherry Hospital prompted him to order intensive retraining for all employees of the facility.
Cansler said he's proud of the strides made to change the culture inside DHHS, such as better training, to fight Medicaid fraud and to stabilize the state's mental health system. He said, however, that the state needs to invest more in mental health.
Perdue has named senior policy advisor Al Delia acting secretary of DHHS. Cansler has agreed to be chairman of Perdue's new Commission on Affordable and Sustainable Healthcare, and he said he would be available to help Delia as needed.
"I'll still be in the mix. I just don't have to worry about the crisis of the day," he said.