Raleigh, N.C. — Given the opportunity to respond to a story on her department that was largely based on records requests, Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos said she hadn't read the story but did say responding to records requests were hampering operations.
North Carolina Health News, a nonprofit news site, reported Tuesday morning that DHHS officials had revised their response to an audit critical of the department. The response, delivered just as the Republican-run administration of Gov. Pat McCrory took over from Democrat Gov. Bev Perdue, made the state's Medicaid system appear more poorly run than was actually the case. Specifically, it did not correct a data mistake by the State Auditor's Office that made it appear North Carolina's administrative costs were higher than in other states.
"It concerns me tremendously when I see us fiddling with the fact," said Sen. Martin Nesbitt, D-Buncombe.
Wos said she had not seen the N.C. Health News story but said she stood by the audit response she signed off on back in January.
Nesbitt was one of several lawmakers who asked about the report. But it was Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, who gave Wos her opening to speak about public records.
"We received a response from the department," Hise said. "Under a public information request, someone has gone in and asked for every previous iteration of that (response), and now we're coming up and asking why things were redacted before they were sent to the General Assembly. ... Anybody who believes that this came out on the day of this hearing, with multiple members asking questions about it is a coincidence, is living in a fairy tale."
He continued, "I think there is an intent here to inundate the department with public information requests, and when you get to the point where you're questioning why something was deleted from a report at some previous time the report was submitted ... I think you're starting to see a witch hunt."
Hise then asked Wos how much time her agency was spending on answering public information requests.
"Senator, it is becoming impactful," she said. "We have several people who work on this full time, and then we have attorneys inside the department that then, after that information is reviewed, then have to review it to make sure that (nothing legally) has to be redacted. It is very time-consuming for us and is pulling us away from the work we should be doing, whether it's Medicaid reform, whether it's now the federal shutdown, whether it's sequestration ... It is truly taking away time and resources from us doing our jobs."
Nesbitt then pushed back against Hise's assertion, saying he didn't have any idea the N.C. Health News report was coming out.
"I've been sitting in here reading it and digesting it for the past two hours," Nesbitt said. "The second thing is, it's not a witch hunt to try to find out what went on, and all of these changes were made by this administration after they took over ... There's not – maybe the lady who wrote the article was on a witch hunt. I think she found one – a little." (You can listen to Nesbitt's full remarks at the 3 hour 26 minute mark of our video.)