Black leaders at the North Carolina General Assembly said Wednesday they want more answers from the Department of Health and Human Services about delays in Medicaid payments and food stamps, high contractor pay and other agency issues.
Members of the Legislative Black Caucus held a news conference in which they released a letter signed by its chairman with dozens of questions for Repubilcan Gov. Pat McCrory and HHS Secretary Dr. Aldona Wos.
Rep. Garland Pierce, D-Scotland and the chairman, also said group members - all Democrats - have felt left out of communications between Wos and the GOP-led legislature and are concerned about her agency's actions.
"We need to sit down and have some candid conversations," said Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham. "We need to have these issues addressed. Other speakers at the news conference said delays in computer programs have meant long waits for Medicaid providers to get reimbursed and food stamp applicants to receive assistance.
Sen. Earline Parmon, D-Forsyth, said she's particularly worried about delays with NC FAST, the service eligibility computer system. She said she's received calls routinely from district residents who can't obtain the food assistance. The problem gets fixed when Parmon intervenes, she said, but it shouldn't come to this. Others that aren't qualifying are getting help from food banks, she said.
"We're demanding action. Our children and our poor and our seniors are suffering," she said.
HHS spokesman Ricky Diaz said late Wednesday the department is adding more than 160 on-site support staff to help counties process applications through NC FAST quickly and accurately, providing at least one support staff in each county. The department said it issued in August $207 million in assistance through Food and Nutrition Services - the formal name for food stamps - to more than 800,000 individuals and families, in line with August 2012 numbers.
"Wos and the department are very concerned when anyone doesn't receive needed benefits on time, and this has been the No. 1 priority for the department," Diaz wrote in an email.
Wos has defended her other actions, saying she has taken an agency with financial and operational problems when she arrived in January and has cut waste while reducing payroll overall. She told legislative leaders late last week that she had created a strong leadership team that included temporary contractors that were hired according to previously-existing policies. One contract worker has been a top executive at the company of Wos' husband and has earned more than $228,000 since January, according to HHS records.
"These contracts are an integral part of our effort to deliver more efficient, effective services to North Carolinians and results to the taxpayers of North Carolina," Wos wrote to selected legislators.
Still, career state employees who have been turned into at-will workers subject to easier dismissals are demoralized as young workers with political connections to McCrory are getting high pay, said Rep. Yvonne Holley, a retired state worker.
Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, promised Democrats in his chamber last week that they would work together to address problems with delays in NC FAST and a NC Tracks, the state's new Medicaid billing system that came online July 1.
Berger suggested a legislative oversight would examine the computer questions in the months ahead before the next legislative session in the spring. But he said last week that salary issues probably wouldn't be reviewed because the executive branch has wide latitude with pay.
HHS has said officials expected troubles with NC Tracks in the short term but point out $1.4 billion in claims have been paid since July.