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Aldona Wos shakes up NC's DHHS

By Lynn Bonner and Craig Jarvis
lbonner@newsobserver.com cjarvis@newsobserver.com
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/09/21/17/07/116-1gmRRx.Em.156.jpeg|230
    Ethan Hyman - ehyman@newsobserver.com
    Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos, foreground, attends a press conference with Gov. Pat McCrory Jan. 31 in Raleigh.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/09/21/17/07/902-11zrIp.Em.156.jpeg|225
    Ethan Hyman - ehyman@newsobserver.com
    Aldona Wos, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, right, and Gov. Pat McCrory talk April 3 about overhauling the state's Medicaid program by having managed care companies offer health care plans for poor children, the elderly and the disabled.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/09/21/17/07/438-bbWof.Em.156.jpeg|241
    Travis Long - 2011 News & Observer file photo
    Pat McCrory, center, talks with supporter Aldona Wos after a Wake County Republican Women's Club fundraiser Nov. 15, 2011, at the North Raleigh Hilton. McCrory had not yet declared himself at official candidate for Governor at this point.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/09/21/17/07/506-MyyDk.Em.156.jpeg|228
    Ethan Hyman - ehyman@newsobserver.com
    Gov. Pat McCrory listens as Aldona Wos, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services talks April 3 about overhauling the state's Medicaid program by having managed care companies offer health care plans for poor children, the elderly and the disabled.

RALEIGH Dr. Aldona Wos set the tone for her leadership of one of the state’s largest and most complex agencies early in her tenure during a public meeting with legislators.

She told lawmakers during a visit in February that the Department of Health and Human Services was broken when she arrived. She described how, in her first days, staff members would rush into her office with contracts she needed to sign ASAP even though they couldn’t detail what the state was buying or for how much. She found papers on her desk with no name or contact information.

That was going to stop, Wos told legislators.

“I issued directives to my senior staff,” she said. Reports were to be on her desk the week before they were due, with a one-page cover sheet and, if appropriate, bulleted highlights.

“You can imagine my displeasure when I was asked to sign a legislative report that was a week late,” she said. “I issued our first warning letters into employee personnel files.”

The presentation foreshadowed the months to come as Wos has presided over a department under siege because of controversial personnel decisions and newly implemented computer systems that have made life miserable for doctors, dentists, county social services workers and needy residents who eat with the help of food stamps.

DHHS, with 17,000 employees and an $18 billion budget, is an unwieldy department that has challenged its leaders for years, no matter their expertise. Professional managers, former legislators, a CPA and a medical doctor who have run DHHS in the past 20 years have all had to handle crises and criticism.

Wos (pronounced “Vosh”) has spent most of her public life in North Carolina as a philanthropist and political fundraiser for top-of-the-ticket Republicans, including former Sen. Elizabeth Dole beginning in 2001 and the Bush/Cheney ticket in 2004. She was one of several fundraisers from the Triad whom President George W. Bush rewarded with an ambassadorship. Wos spent about two years as ambassador to Estonia, leaving the post in December 2006.

Last year, she worked as a fundraiser for Gov. Pat McCrory, leading Women for McCrory.

Last week, the governor defended her. He said he considers Wos a mentor.

“We’re fortunate to have Dr. Aldona Wos,” he said. “She’s one of the smartest individuals I’ve ever been around. She’s one of the most dedicated public servants.”

Straightening out DHHS requires a super manager and someone adept at politics, said Carter Wrenn, a Republican strategist. Wos should have offered explanations for her controversial hiring decisions, including proof of why certain hires are worth the money, he said.

“While she may be an excellent manager, the political part of this is completely alien and new,” he said. “If you don’t explain it, it sounds like you can’t explain it.”

No one who works for Wos has been willing to talk publicly. Wos would not agree to an interview and has mostly shied away from reporters in recent months. While in public this summer, she was twice shielded from reporters who tried to ask her questions.

In April, she lectured reporters on the dangers of government transparency, saying it gets in the way of people doing their jobs. The department should not be asked about its plans, she said.

“I think the word transparency can get pretty dangerous,” Wos said.. “Because what does transparency mean? If transparency means that we’re in a planning process and you’re asking us, ‘Tell us all the things you’re planning,’ well, my goodness, allow us to work, and then we’ll give you everything that you want.”

A major fundraiser

Wos, 58, was born in Poland; her father survived a concentration camp. She moved to the United States in 1961 at age 6. She attended Marquette University and returned to Poland for medical school, graduating from Warsaw Medical Academy in 1980.

She practiced medicine in New York, completing a residency in internal medicine. But since moving to North Carolina, she has made her mark in politics.

She is married to Louis DeJoy, CEO of New Breed Logistics in High Point, a company that manages supply chains and inventory for other companies. The privately held company has 7,000 employees. Its client list includes Pratt & Whitney, Proctor & Gamble and the U.S. Postal Service.

Wos and DeJoy have been active fundraisers in the Republican Party since Elizabeth Dole started her run for the U.S. Senate in 2001.

They have contributed well over $600,000 to state and federal candidates and committees since 2000, records show.

Wos and DeJoy have collected campaign donations to deliver to candidates or committees and hosted fundraisers at their home in Greensboro, which provides a stylish setting for such high-dollar affairs.

They bought the house in 2005, while she was still serving as ambassador. Wos and her husband swung what The News & Record of Greensboro reported at the time as the biggest residential sale in the city’s history: $5.9 million.

The turreted mansion has nearly 15,000 square feet. It is secluded behind a fence and landscaping on four acres in the city’s Irving Park neighborhood.

Last year, the couple bought a Figure Eight Island beach house for close to $3 million.

In addition to New Breed Logistics, DeJoy owns two rental property companies and an investment firm. Wos also has an ownership interest in a limited liability corporation established in New York in 2010 called Wos Associates, but it isn’t clear what that corporation does.

Wos and DeJoy have also set up a substantial family foundation. The couple put more than $7 million into it in 2012.

The foundation has made substantial contributions to Elon University, the George W. Bush Foundation, the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, Columbia University, United Way and St. Pius Catholic Church. It gave smaller gifts to Habitat for Humanity of Greater Greensboro, Triad Health Project, the Women’s Resource Center in Greensboro and Duke University.

DeJoy is a board member at Elon University. Wos was on the UNC Board of Trustees until resigning in December before taking her new state job.

Turbulence from the start

At DHHS, Wos’ problems started early when it was revealed that her first choice to lead the children’s division had opposed the types of early childhood programs she would have overseen in the $110,000-a-year job.

Then in July, Dr. Laura Gerald, the state health director, resigned, citing disagreements with the administration. The state’s top dentist, Dr. Rebecca King, was fired after 35 years in state government after a tense meeting with Wos over budget cuts to oral health.

On Friday, another unusual personnel decision surfaced: Tom Adams, who worked as Wos’ chief of staff for one month this year, was given a $37,000 payment “to settle any and all outstanding claims and obligations,” Wos wrote to state budget director Art Pope. Pope approved the payment.

Meanwhile, two 24-year-old former campaign staffers of McCrory’s were hired, promoted and given raises of more than 30 percent despite their lack of obvious experience. Spokesman Ricky Diaz makes $85,000, and chief policy adviser Matt McKillip makes $87,500.

A McCrory donor from Greenville with a scant work history for the past 10 years was hired at $95,000 to work on the state’s Medicaid plan.

In addition, Wos hired a vice president of her husband’s company to serve as a top adviser – under a contract worth $310,000 for 10 months. She also hired former state Auditor Les Merritt under a $312,000 annual contract.

In a News 14 television interview Friday, Wos defended Diaz and McKillip. They are hard workers with tremendous responsibilities, Wos said, and she wishes she could pay them more.

“Actually, it should be more, but that option does not exist. Based on their responsibility and portfolio, absolutely.”

Retirements and forced departures cleared out top offices soon after Wos arrived, but a new state law that allows McCrory to increase patronage positions across state government allows her to fill more jobs with people she’s hand-picked.

The uproar over hiring decisions and faulty systems caused Wos to defend her agency in a letter to select lawmakers, and her department released an informational graphic highlighting its successes.

DHHS said that its payroll had shrunk by about $23 million from last year. But a News & Observer analysis of the payroll shows it down about $1.5 million. DHHS officials have not been available to explain the difference.

The department has a plan to save $1 million a year by reducing the number of private agency nurses in state facilities and says it will save $1.8 million over four years by moving two divisions in leased space to the Dorothea Dix campus, where other DHHS offices are located.

A governor’s trust

Hiring decisions have been only one aspect of the troubles surrounding DHHS in recent months.

Since DHHS began using a new Medicaid payment system in July, doctors and other health care providers have been complaining that they’ve had trouble getting paid and that their calls for help have been futile.

WakeMed CEO Bill Atkinson called out the agency for unpaid claims for outpatient procedures and for limitations that forced more than 5,000 claims to be submitted by hand. Meanwhile, North Carolina Families Accessing Services through Technology, a state program used by county social services departments, has fouled local computer systems, causing long waits for those in need of food stamps.

Problems with the software caused application backlogs and delays in delivering benefits. Food banks have seen a spike in demand, partly because of NC FAST’s problems.

If there’s anyone with the ability to dive into problems and fix them, it’s Wos, said Teresa Kostrzewa, a lobbyist who has known Wos for about eight years. Wos focuses on details, is tenacious, and is willing to work hard, Kostrzewa said.

“If you’re going to war, you want to be in the foxhole with her,” she said.

McCrory seems to share that trust.

McCrory and Wos met before last year’s campaign, but they got to know one another well when she started helping him raise money.

She gave him some advice while he was out campaigning, suggesting that he let women finish asking their questions before he started speaking, and to answer the questions they asked.

The governor got to know Wos’ family, including her twin children, and has even met her parents. “She’s been a great adviser and friend and in many ways a mentor,” McCrory said. “I just admire her and her courage to stand up to adversity.”

‘A statewide problem’

Lanier Cansler has watched Wos make changes from the position of someone who knows DHHS. He’s a former secretary and deputy secretary of the department under two previous administrations.

“Each administration has to decide how it believes best to manage what is a very complicated agency,” Cansler said in an email. He added that he did not want to criticize the current administration.

“I can’t pass any judgment on reorganizations because I don’t have all the details,” he said. “Every DHHS secretary has to manage within the realities of the governor’s administration, the legislature, changing federal rules, and identified needs of the state.”

Lawmakers will take a fresh look at the job Wos is doing in a few weeks, at an all-day committee meeting scheduled to talk about the agency. It will offer legislative Democrats, who have been most critical of Wos and the agency’s computer problems, a chance to ask questions in public. They’ll also likely get an update on Medicaid spending, the giant sore spot in the state budget.

State Sen. Mike Woodard, a Durham Democrat, wants some answers about the troubled computer systems, and he particularly wants to know when problems will end for doctors trying to get their Medicaid claims paid.

“A lot of our health care providers are not getting paid,” he said. “Some are in real dire straits right now.”

He hopes that Republicans who lead the committee will allow probing questions.

“I hope they’re going to join us in asking some of these hard questions and demand of the department some real clear answers,” Woodard said. “It’s a statewide problem. It’s not a partisan problem.”

Bonner: 919-829-4821
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