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Health agency leaders prepare for grilling

RALEIGH (AP) — After months of outside scrutiny on how they’ve operated two new computer systems and hired high-priced contract workers, North Carolina health agency leaders prepared for tough questions from the people who give them their money to spend.

Two General Assembly oversight committees scheduled public meetings Tuesday to hear from Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Aldona Wos and her top lieutenants within one of state government’s largest agencies.

Panel leaders scheduled the first half of the day to focus upon why problems have continued since the July 1 rollout of new Medicaid billing system called NCTracks and the implementation of NC FAST, which is designed to enroll residents for government assistance programs.

Hundreds of doctors and hospitals are still struggling to file successful reimbursement claims for treating Medicaid patients through NC Tracks, while backlogs in food stamp applications as NC FAST was expanded to include Medicaid enrollment have forced the hungry to flood private food banks for help.

Rep. Justin Burr, R-Stanly, co-chairman of the Joint Legislative Committee on Health and Human Services, said the meeting will “shed some light on a lot of areas that really need a lot of improvement.”

Burr and other committee leaders want Wos later to address a litany of issues, including salaries and contracts, the department’s reorganization and carrying out fiscal changes to Medicaid, which spends more than $13 billion in federal and state dollars annually. The surprise announcement two weeks ago that state Medicaid director Carol Steckel was leaving after less than nine months on the job likely will surface, since she was brought in to help Wos and Gov. Pat McCrory seek to shift Medicaid operations toward the private sector.

NC FAST and NCTracks cost hundreds of millions of dollars each to build or operate, with 10 or 20 percent of the cost being footed by the state, depending on the program. Medical providers also will give testimony about their struggles with NC Tracks, which have led some to take loans or delay salaries while waiting for reimbursement checks to clear. A representative with Computer Sciences Corp., the company hired by DHHS to make and run NCTracks, also was slated to speak.

DHHS has responded to requests from legislators to help their constituents with NCTracks and NC FAST issues, such as approving food stamp applications. They’ve also held regular conference calls open to legislators or their staffs. About 30 lawmakers or their aides have attended, department spokesman Ricky Diaz said last week.

Senate Minority Leader Martin Nesbitt, D-Buncombe, said he’s sat down with Wos to discuss his concerns with the two systems a few weeks ago but “didn’t go from there leaving that the problems would be settled any time soon.”

Wos declined comment Monday in advance of the meeting, Diaz said. But department Chief Information Officer Joe Cooper said last week he looked forward to the meeting because he believed NCTracks was running more efficiently and problems with providers and call center delays were being addressed.

“We have issues (but) we can identify the issues, we can identify the plans for addressing those issues,” Cooper said. Building NCTracks had already marked by delays and cost overruns before Wos was hired as McCrory’s administration began.

Wos also was expected to face questions about hiring several new contract workers. Joe Hauck, who works for a logistics firm led by Wos’ husband, has already been paid well over $200,000 at DHHS while conducting reviews of agency financial operations and making recommendations, according to data and officials.

The department also hired Diaz and another ex-McCrory campaign aide in their 20s for high-ranking positions that make more than $80,000 each. Wos, who volunteered in McCrory’s campaign, has defended the hiring of the young employees and wrote selected legislators last month that the contract workers were an integral part of making more efficient an agency routinely facing Medicaid shortfalls.

Legislators also want to hear from Wos about a new law requiring drug tests for more welfare applicants. McCrory has said he won’t carry out the tests because legislators didn’t appropriate enough funding to do so. McCrory’s decision followed the legislature’s override of his veto of the bill. Legislative leaders suggest he’s not carrying out his constitutional duties if he ignores the law.

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