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State health agency leader apologizes for privacy violations

The head of the state’s health agency apologized Tuesday for errors that resulted in violations of federal privacy rights of nearly 50,000 children.

“I deeply apologize for the impact this has caused to the citizens of this state,” said Dr. Aldona Wos, state Department of Health and Human Services secretary, at a legislative committee meeting that once again focused on the agency’s shortcomings.

The department has been juggling crises in the last month. In December, the agency mailed 48,752 children’s Medicaid insurance cards, which include their names, dates of birth and Medicaid identification numbers, to the wrong addresses. A few weeks earlier, the U.S. Department of Agriculture threatened to sanction the state for lengthy delays in processing thousands of food stamp applications.

Legislators were surprised by the federal warning because just two months before, DHHS officials delivered an upbeat report on the food stamp system’s progress.

Democratic legislators have called for Gov. Pat McCrory to replace Wos. McCrory and legislative Republicans support her.

Senate Minority Leader Martin Nesbitt said there’s a difference between being apologetic and being accountable, and what’s needed is a plan to fix all the problems.

“Nobody’s told me when it’s going to be done and how they’re going to get us there,” he said.

New computer systems are the agency’s greatest challenge, Wos said.

The state expanded a public benefits computer system called NC FAST that’s giving county caseworkers and clients headaches. NC FAST is used for food stamps and Medicaid, and will add other functions.

Wos blames health care law

On July 1, the agency launched a new computer system that pays bills health care providers submit for treating Medicaid patients. The system drew immediate complaints from providers, and it is still preventing legislative staff from figuring out how much the state has spent on Medicaid this year.

“We are pretty much in the dark as far as trying to figure out where you are in the current year without the enrollment data or the utilization data or the claims data,” Susan Jacobs, a fiscal research staffer, told legislators.

Wos blamed “unprecedented change” that has come with the new federal health care law for problems at the agency, coupled with the lack of guidance from the federal government.

“The implementation of the federal Affordable Care Act is creating a massive issue in the state of North Carolina,” she said. “Frankly, DHHS is struggling.”

DHHS officials sought to reassure legislators that it was working with counties to whittle the waiting list for food stamps and satisfy federal requirements.

DHHS credibility ‘hurt’

Legislators said they were surprised to learn last week that the USDA threatened to cut off money it sends to the state to administer the program.

“We were led to believe that in terms of the North Carolina FAST program all of the kinks had been pretty much worked out,” said Sen. Floyd McKissick, a Durham Democrat. McKissick said he was “surprised and almost startled” to read the USDA letter about thousands of applications lingering weeks and months, waiting for approval.

“I think it hurts the credibility and the integrity of the agency when we can’t necessarily depend on the information we receive in sessions such as this,” McKissick said.

Despite legislators’ surprise at the news of possible sanctions, Wos said the agency had been transparent about the food stamp backlog. Legislators receive monthly reports on the food stamp application waiting lists, she said.

The positive NC FAST assessment in October was based on “the improvement we were seeing on the ground,” said Wayne Black, head of the state division of social services.

The information the state sent to the USDA inflates the wait list, he added, with as many as half the pending applications representing duplicates for people already getting benefits.

Nesbitt questioned the inaccurate reports going to USDA, and said information was being kept from legislative staff. An email from fiscal research staff said DHHS didn’t mention the USDA letter in a Dec. 11 meeting on NC FAST.

“They aren’t being transparent, and they aren’t giving us information,” Nesbitt said in an interview.

Bonner: 919-829-4821; Twitter: @Lynn_Bonner
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