Wos steps down, not a moment too soon

The Observer editorial board

Aldona Wos
Aldona Wos

Usually when Aldona Wos makes headlines, it’s a bad sign for North Carolinians. She was back there Wednesday, though, and for once the news was good: She’s leaving.

Gov. Pat McCrory’s health secretary announced that she wants to spend more time with her family. We’re sure she’s a wonderful wife and mother. But she was an overwhelmed leader of one of state government’s biggest departments.

Wos’s credentials consisted primarily of her status as a prodigious fundraiser for McCrory, President George W. Bush and other Republicans. That helped make her Bush’s ambassador to Estonia. But professionally she was a doctor, and she retired from that 18 years ago. She had never run a large enterprise, so it was optimistic to think she would be adept at leading an agency with 17,000 employees and an $18 billion budget.

Her troubles began almost right away. She hired two 24-year-olds with ties to McCrory and paid them far more than their experience would normally command. She quietly granted a contract to a vice president of her husband’s firm for $310,000 a year. She granted another to former state auditor Les Merritt for $312,000 a year.

Her other mismanagement affected tens of thousands of N.C. residents. Her department rolled out two computer systems – NC Tracks and NC FAST – that, respectively, were to reimburse doctors for Medicaid services and distribute food stamp money to the poor. Both were plagued with problems from the start that dragged on for far too long.

In December 2013, Wos’s department mistakenly sent confidential information – including the names, dates of birth and Medicaid ID numbers for 48,752 children – to the wrong addresses. Officials then gave out incorrect information about when the problem was discovered.

Wos hired Dianna Lightfoot to lead the state’s early childhood education program. When it came out two days later that Lightfoot had publicly opposed pre-kindergarten, she resigned. Wos watched other high-profile departures from her leadership team, including two Medicaid directors and her state health director.

In 2013, Wos’s department halted WIC food and formula benefits for pregnant women and new moms, blaming the federal government shutdown. But the Observer editorial board reported that North Carolina was the first and only state to halt its WIC program because the U.S. Department of Agriculture had offered contingency funding, and Wos promptly announced that she had found the money to restore the payments.

She championed a plan to secure $60 million from Washington, but it relied on clever maneuvering that the feds rejected. Legislators and then state Budget Director Art Pope, who had counted on the money for the budget, were annoyed.

And so on.

“The improvement process has at times been truly painful and it has been much slower than” desired, Wos said Wednesday.

McCrory points out that the Medicaid budget has swung from a deficit to a surplus during Wos’s tenure, and that is so. But that one bright spot is outweighed by her performance on so many other fronts.

She was clearly in over her head, and McCrory should have overcome his unusual loyalty to her to replace her long ago. Here’s hoping Wos’s successor, ProNerve CEO Rick Brajer, has a better run.