Raleigh, N.C. — North Carolina's new secretary of Health and Human Resources met with lawmakers for the first time since being sworn in this weekend. Aldona Wos, a former U.S. Ambassador and medical doctor, will be responsible for running the department that administers the state's Medicaid program, oversees the statewide mental health safety net and runs North Carolina's pre-Kindergarten program.
"I'd like to be able to have a department that is accountable, reliable and that you can count on the information that your receive from them," Wos said during a brief introductory statement to the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Health and Human Services. Over the past two years, during which Republicans have controlled the legislature, the committee's relationship with officials from Gov. Bev Perdue's administration has often has been contentious. Perdue, a Democrat, left office this weekend, as Republican Gov. Pat McCrory was sworn in.
Two of the most pressing challenges for McCrory and Wos involve two different kinds of treatment facilities in the mental health arena:
- Mental health group homes, which house those with psychiatric conditions who do not need hospitalization. A quirk in last year's budget law cut these homes off from a key source of funding. In one of her last acts, Perdue found money to keep these patients in their homes through January, but lawmakers and the new administration will have to find a more permanent fix.
- Special Care Units for people with Alzheimer's disease also face a funding problem. This one stems from the number of hours of service residents of these facilities are eligible for under federal rules. These people are also faced with the possible loss of their placements.
The committee did not speak with Wos about this issue and did not cover it in a list of recommendations members voted to send to the full General Assembly.
However, after the meeting, Wos said both problems are ones that only the legislature has the power to fix, both in the short term and in the long term.
"It has to come from the legislature," Wos said.
"It is a legislative fix," she said. "At the end of the day, the first thing money has to come from someplace to pay for people to live some place. Then there are the rules and regulations that are coming down from the federal government that recently changed and are why we're in this predicament, so we have to find a way forward."
Perdue never addressed the Alzheimer's problem. Her group home patch was only designed to last through the end of January. Although lawmakers will be sworn in Wednesday, Jan. 9, they will not fully return to work until Jan. 30.
"It has to happen," Wos said.
Committee Chairman Nelson Dollar agreed with Wos' assessment and said that legislators would have legal remedies ready to push forward when they returned to work on Jan. 30. Dollar said he anticipated one bill would be used to address both problems and push through in the first week of session.