DHHS troubles continue

Jan. 06, 2014 @ 05:43 PM

The stumbles just continue at North Carolina’s troubled Department of Health and Human Services.

The department admittedly is one of the largest in state government, with a complex portfolio and a history of missteps that predates the current administration in Raleigh.

But the families of the 48,752 children whose new Medicaid insurance cards ended up in someone else’s mailbox surely think this is more than just embarrassing. It exposes personal information about the intended recipients and, the department acknowledged Monday, breached federal privacy laws.

The agency compounded the questions raised by this latest misstep by having trouble explaining how it initially learned of and responded to the problem. Only Monday afternoon did it explain how the error occurred.

 The erroneous mailing first came to public light Friday, when the agency issued a release at 5:20 p.m. saying that new Medicaid cards for nearly 49,000 children were mailed Dec. 30 to the wrong people. The incorrect card shows the child's name, Medicaid identification number, date of birth and primary care physician, DHHS said.

On Friday, agency spokesman Ricky Diaz told the Associated Press the agency first learned of the misdirected mailing the day before. But Saturday, Sandra Terrell, the department’s acting Medicaid director, issued a clarifying statement that some agency workers became aware of the problem on Tuesday -- New Year’s Eve. 

Terrell said the department had “begun a careful review of this incident to determine how it occurred.” Monday, it issued a statement attributing the mistake to human error in using a computer program that extracted information from a Medicaid database.

This miscue comes in the wake of the agency’s fumbled roll-out of a pair of computer programs last fall. NCTracks and NC Fast, new software to handle Medicaid enrollment and payments, experienced glitches which held up promised benefits and payments -- at times, for months.

The agency also has come under criticism for high pay to contractors and high salaries for relatively inexperienced aides with ties to the Republican Party and McCrory’s gubernatorial campaign.

In the wake of the Medicaid-card errors last week, the McCrory administration remained broadly supportive of the department, as it has been throughout the criticisms. McCrory spokeswoman Kim Genardo told the Associated Press’s Michael Biesecker that this administration had inherited problems in the agency.

“The focus of this administration is to fix a DHHS system that’s been broken for over a decade,” she said.

Still, the question arises of whether the repairs violate an ethos with which DHHS Secretary Aldona Wos, a physician, should be familiar – “first, do no harm.”

And Genardo, Biesecker reported, asked twice whether McCrory still has complete confidence in Wos, declined to answer.

That would seem to be a troubling start to the new year for the agency’s leadership.