Local News

DHHS secretary won't serve under Perdue

Posted December 3, 2008 4:36 p.m. EST
Updated December 3, 2008 10:19 p.m. EST

— Governor-elect Perdue says Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Dempsey Benton won't be serving in her administration for long.

Perdue said Wednesday that she has been "looking aggressively" across the nation for the right candidate to lead the state's troubled health care system.

Although she wouldn't say whether the decision for Dempsey to step down was a mutual agreement – "You can speak to the secretary himself. I'm not going to speak for Dempsey Benton" – she said he has agreed to stay on to help with the transition to his replacement.

"Secretary Benton has done a really good job of trying to fix the problems and make the train work again," she said. "He has come into a situation that seemed to be broken when he took over, and he's trying as hard as he can and has been forthright."

Benton could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Gov. Mike Easley appointed Benton to the position last year to succeed former Secretary Carmen Hooker Odom, who left to serve as the head of a New York-based health research foundation.

Benton was chief deputy secretary for the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources prior to his appointment.

Some state lawmakers and mental health care advocacy groups say Benton inherited a troubled system.

In recent months, the department has come under scrutiny because of problems at the state's mental hospitals, including the April 29 death of Cherry Hospital patient Steven Sabock, who was neglected for 22 hours before he died.

Benton has taken steps over the past year to overhaul the system, including having more worker accountability.

Following an investigation into Sabock's death, Benton ordered further disciplinary review of the workers involved and closed the ward where Sabock stayed.

"He's been very open and has faced the questions and challenges we've given him to face," Perdue said of Benton.