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Mismanagement is unrelenting at DHHS

North Carolina’s Health and Human Services department made a serious error last week, then compounded the mistake by giving the public misleading information about it.

The state DHHS breached the confidentiality of nearly 49,000 child Medicaid recipients by mailing their personal information to the wrong addresses. The mailings included the beneficiaries’ names, birth dates, Medicaid identification numbers and their doctors’ names.

This serious violation of privacy was followed by actions that had the appearance of a cover-up. The cards were mailed Monday, Dec. 30. DHHS notified the public of the mistake at 5:20 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 3, about 30 minutes after Charlotte’s WSOC ran a story about a mother who had received one of the wrong cards.

DHHS spokesman Ricky Diaz said on Friday that the agency owned up to the blunder “as quickly as possible” and that the department had first learned of the problem on Thursday.

Not true. The Asheville Citizen Times obtained an email showing that DHHS and county social services offices knew about it Dec. 31, the day after the cards went out. Saturday, DHHS acknowledged that it knew about the problem earlier than Diaz had said. In a statement, the department said Diaz had been talking about only when “senior leaders” learned of the mistake.

This is problematic either way. Why did senior leaders take so long to learn about such a fundamental slip-up, if they did? And why did it take DHHS more than three days to notify the public?

This was a serious violation, but no one at DHHS explained what happened until late yesterday, when Medicaid director Sandra Terrell issued a release blaming the problem on “human error in computer programming and the quality assurance process in printing the new Medicaid identification cards.”

DHHS Secretary Aldona Wos, meanwhile, has remained as silent as usual.

DHHS acknowledges this was a breach of federal HIPAA rules and that it opens the door for potential Medicaid fraud. It is yet another black eye for a department that has made one misstep after another over the past year. Can North Carolinians really feel good about the leadership of such an essential government agency?

Lassiter makes right move

Whatever his motivation, Charlotte’s John Lassiter is doing the right thing by stepping down as chairman of the Renew North Carolina Foundation.

Critics, led by Rob Schofield of the liberal group N.C. Policy Watch, have said it’s a conflict of interest for Lassiter to fill that role while also serving as chairman of the state Economic Development Board and as a board member of the new Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina. That public-private group will spearhead corporate recruitment for the state.

That would put Lassiter in the position of raising money from corporations to help Gov. Pat McCrory politically while also helping give out state money to corporations considering a move to the state.

Lassiter, a long-time Charlotte City Council and school board member, says he will step down from the foundation this month. He didn’t answer directly when asked by a reporter if the potential conflict was the reason, and foundation executive director Brian Nick said Lassiter had planned to leave all along. In any case, it is good that Lassiter is avoiding the appearance of a conflict.

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