A long day for Wos
RALEIGH — It was one of those rare days at the North Carolina General Assembly, one that only occurs every couple of years.
Lobbyists and political reporters were looking forward to the sparks, fireworks or whatever else you wanted to call the conflict that was sure to ensue.
A cabinet secretary and her lieutenants had been summoned to the building for a public grilling.
The secretary was Aldona Wos, the Polish-born doctor, former U.S. ambassador, Republican fundraiser and current head of the state Department of Health and Human Service.
Wos and her agency had been under fire for weeks. A revolving door of personnel, questionable salaries and hires, and new computer systems struggling to deliver payments had led to this moment.
Legislators wanted answers and reassurance.
Nine hours later, it was less than clear that they had gotten what they wanted.
Wos deflected much of the criticism by calling on the bevy of bureaucrats by her side, who wandered off into detail land to blunt the point of lawmakers' questions. A top executive from the computer firm CSC, which built the troubled Medicaid claims system at the center of controversy, took some of the heat as well.
The most pointed questions from legislators came over the salary questions -- $85,000 to young aides not far removed from college, a $37,000 severance payment to a man only on the job a month, a six-figure contract to a politically connected consultant.
"You need to tell me how I am to respond to that … We are getting killed over it," said state Sen. Tommy Tucker, a Union County Republican.
Back in the district, voters apparently were making little distinction between legislative and executive branch authority regarding those well-publicized pay hikes.
Maybe they shouldn't be. Tucker and colleagues voted to give Gov. Pat McCrory and his cabinet secretaries more personnel flexibility, making some of those decisions possible.
Vos was not reminding him of that fact on this day.
She shouldn't have been.
Even if she is taking a beating over personnel decisions and salary increases, most of the people in the room weren't there to hear about $85,000-a-year press aides.
They wanted to know when a computer claims system responsible for paying 70,000-plus doctors, medical practices, hospitals and other health care providers in North Carolina is going to start delivering as advertised.
During the meeting, legislators heard stories from a hospital administrator who has seen no payments for chemotherapy drugs since the system went on line in July, a medical practice administrator considering turning away Medicaid patients because of unpaid claims, and discussions from several providers about call center operators unable to fix problems.
A revolving door of personnel doesn't help Vos.
But if she is not in her job a year from now, the mostly likely reason will be that a new Medicaid claims system that she has portrayed as getting better every day is really what Tucker suggested it might be: an $800 million pig with some agency-applied lipstick.