Raleigh, N.C. — Saying it was "simply time to go home," North Carolina Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos resigned Wednesday, becoming the second member of Gov. Pat McCrory's cabinet to step down in a little over a week.
McCrory named Rick Brajer, a former medical technology executive, as the new chief of the Department of Health and Human Services.
"It has been a long two years and seven months," Wos told reporters after a news conference, adding that she wanted to spend time with her college-age children and her ailing mother.
Wos' last day will be Aug. 14. Brajer reports for work the following Monday.
Asked if she would change any of the decisions that she made over a sometimes rocky tenure, Wos said, "Not at all."
Wos has taken heat from both lawmakers and the public for Medicaid cost overruns and glitches with new systems to process Medicaid claims and enroll people in public assistance programs, but McCrory credited her with streamlining a health care delivery system that has been rife with problems for years.
"She took all the hits, she took all the bullets, and didn't transfer the blame to anybody," McCrory said. "What she did was solve the problems."
Both Wos and McCrory played up the fact that the state's Medicaid program ended the year with a $130 million surplus, an achievement for an agency that was known for regularly needed more money from lawmakers at the end of the fiscal year in order to make ends meet.
The governor's voice broke, and he began to cry as he introduced Wos to make remarks. Wos handed him a tissue just as McCrory handed her the Order of the Longleaf Pine, an award for service to the state bestowed by North Carolina governors.
Wos' departure, complete with advance notice, a news conference and award presentation stands in stark contrast with the departure last week of Transportation Secretary Tony Tata, which was abruptly announced by news release after he had already cleared out his office.
"The improvement process, at times, has been truly painful," Wos said, referring to a pair of new computer systems that were initially error-prone and led to underpaid providers, problems for patients trying to qualify for services and a dearth of data needed to steer one of the biggest departments in state government.
Wos got a laugh as she ticked off those she had worked with over the years, lingering pointedly on the names of lawmakers who have often called the department to task for missing budget and for high-profile problems. She even stopped her remarks to hug Sen. Tommy Tucker, R-Union.
"The Department of Health and Human Services has been a huge mess for a long time," Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, said, generally joining McCrory in his praise of Wos' efforts, calling DHHS secretary "the most difficult job in state government."
Asked if he, like McCrory, would be shedding a tear of Wos' departure, Hise said, "I am thankful for her service that she has given to the state. I look forward to seeing her in other ventures."
New secretary brings private-sector experience
When Wos came into the McCrory administration, she brought both experience as a medical doctor and public service experience as a U.S. ambassador.
Brajer, 54, who has an MBA from Stanford and has been chief executive of Denver-based ProNerve and Raleigh-based LipoScience, said he is "motivated as all get out" to tackle the task of leading DHHS.
LipoScience was acquired by LabCorp in 2014, while ProNerve was bought by Specialty Care in April.
Asked what his biggest challenge would be making the transition from the private sector to the public, Brajer said it was the number of people who had to sign off on his decisions.
"The reality is there are many more stakeholders you need to engage with," he said. "The good news is, is that I really enjoy building relationships."
That relationship building began almost immediately, as Brajer was taken off to meet with key lawmakers who attended the news conference.
Spending on DHHS takes up roughly a quarter of all state tax dollars put into North Carolina government and, when federal funds are counted, spends roughly $20 billion per year. Brajer mentioned the realties of dealing with one of the biggest and fastest-growing departments after being introduced by McCrory.
"By any standard, our state cares about its most vulnerable citizens," he said. "The challenge is that the growth in need for those services is really crowding out our needed investment in other areas as well, hence the need for reform."
Both McCrory and lawmakers have proposed changing the Medicaid system that provides health insurance for the poor and disabled, but the governor's plan varies drastically with the Senate. Lawmakers say Brajer's appointment will not slow down their push toward reform.
"I think we'll continue to move at the pace that we can, but we'll make sure they're well informed of all the steps that we're taking," Hise said.
Like Wos, Brajer is the son of immigrants to the country. His family came from Yugoslavia on a trip sponsored by the Lutheran Church, and several times during his remarks, he mentioned his faith, as when he mentioned moving to North Carolina.
"I believe by faith it is God's providence that my family and I were brought here 12 years ago," he said.
Brajer called his private-sector experience "a strength" that would help him manage the department.
"The good news is that it doesn't rely just on my talents and my capabilities," he said. "You have a department of 17,000 people with a lot of deep experience."