Aldona Wos (left) speaks during the announcement that she will step down as secretary of the NC Department of Health and Human services, as Rick Brajer (middle) and Gov. Pat McCrory (right) look on. Brajer will replace Wos as secretary of the department. Kirk Ross/Carolina Public Press

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Hise: Wos’s departure should not slow down Medicaid overhaul

RALEIGH — For the second time in a week, there’s been turnover in the upper echelons of Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration. The latest change came Wednesday, with the resignation of N.C. Department of Heath and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos and the announcement that Rick Brajer a biotech executive, would head the department.

The news was delivered to a crowd of family, DHHS officials, legislators and media at the Governors Mansion during a departure announcement that included a review of Wos’s work and a few tears from both the governor and the secretary.

The change at DHHS has been in the works since Wos, who agreed to serve for a salary of $1 a year, made her intention to leave known about two months ago. She said she had not planned on spending two years and eight months on the job, but stayed to see through changes in the department.

“I have already stayed longer than I expected,” Wos said, thanking her family. “It is simply time to go home.”

The governor, who has backed Wos through a series of controversies, called her “the best secretary of Health and Human Services the state has ever had.”

He said coming into office that DHHS faced serious challenges in Medicaid, mental health reform, cost overruns for the faulty NC Tracks system and a lack of medical examiners.

On Wednesday, the governor said the recent announcement that the state Medicaid system will end the year with a $131 million surplus is evidence of Wos’s achievements. He praised her for working through difficulties such as the rollout of NC Tracks.

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“She took all the hits,” McCrory said, “and didn’t transfer the blame to anybody. What she did was solve the problem.”

Wos’s departure comes at a critical point in budget negotiations in which the future of Medicaid plays a critical role.

Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, talks with reporters in Raleigh on Wednesday following the announcement of top leadership changes at the NC Department of Health and Human Services. Kirk Ross/Carolina Public Press

After the announcement, Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, said Wos strongly defended her department.

“She fights very hard for her position and direction, and we, as a General Assembly, at times have had different ideas and different directions and those have conflicted,” he said. “But I think she’s someone who has always had the interests of the state of North Carolina and the citizens we serve at heart.”

Hise, who clashed with DHHS officials, including Wos, over Medicaid, the department’s reliance on high-dollar consulting contracts and the NC Tracks rollout, said he did not expect the change in leadership to slow down the General Assembly’s efforts to overhaul the state Medicaid system.

Hise said that even with the new secretary coming in, he expects to continue the push for changes this year. Hise said that since extensive discussions have continued with the department, Brajer should be quickly up to speed on the issue. He said he would like to see changes passed “in quick order.” Asked what that meant, Hise said, “This is the General Assembly; I’d like to have it done last week.”

Brajer, who was the CEO of the Raleigh-based diagnostics firm LipoScience from 2003 to 2013, said he would embrace reform.

“By any standard, our state cares for its most vulnerable citizens,” he said. “The challenge is that the growth and need for those services is really crowding out our needed investments in other areas as well, hence the need for reform.”

Brajer told the governor he was “motivated as all get-out for this job.”

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In remarks to reporters later, Brajer said the department would emphasis a people first approach as it retools. He said he would favor a provider-based Medicaid reform.

“The priorities are clearly Medicaid reform, mental health, substance abuse and continuing to drive efficiencies,” he said.

Not long after the announcement by the governor, Sen. Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, had one of his own.

Berger held a press conference announcing that both the Medicaid reform proposal and an economic development package in the Senate’s version of the budget would be stripped out and run as separate bills. Berger said House leaders and the governor had objected to the provisions and he hoped removing them would help clear the way for a budget deal.

The current temporary funding plan for the state expires Aug. 14.

Kirk Ross

Based in the Triangle, Kirk Ross is the capital bureau chief for Carolina Public Press. Contact him at kross@carolinapublicpress.org.

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