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The Nine Habits of a Highly Effective Secretary for DHHS

With the recent passing of the torch from Aldona Wos to Rick Brajer (see blog), I’ve been thinking about…

What are the qualifications of a Secretary of DHHS?

What exactly are the qualities that would make a great Secretary of DHHS?  Remember, in Mary Poppins, when the children draft their requirements for a nanny?  Or, better yet, what are the “Seven Habits of a Highly Effective” Secretary for DHHS?  Or…in this case, the “Nine Habits”…

Here are my “Nine Habits of a Highly Effective Secretary of DHHS;” our Secretary of DHHS should have the following:

  1. A health care background
  2. A successful track record of his/her ability to manage large companies or agencies
  3. An understanding of the Medicaid system, and, maybe, even have first-hand knowledge of how the system affects recipients and providers
  4. A relationship with someone on Medicaid or a parent of someone on Medicaid
  5. A working knowledge of clinical coverage policies, reimbursement rates, and regulations surrounding Medicaid
  6. Both the capacity to listen and speak and do both eloquently and genuinely
  7. True empathy about the physical and mental health of Medicaid recipients and about providers, plus have the patience to handle all types of demographic differences
  8. An understanding that he/she is handling tax payers’ money, that redundancy in staff is excess administrative costs, and ability to trim the fat
  9. An ability to communicate with both the Senate and the House and to be frank with both

wosbrajer

Let us analyze the qualifications of Wos that we came to witness over the last few years, as well as, review the qualifications of soon-to-be Sec. Brajer with information to which we are privy.

Let’s see if both, either, or neither have these “Nine Habits of a Highly-Effective Secretary for DHHS.”

  1. Health care background:

Wos: Yes. And, yet, maybe not.  She is an M.D. Although I do not know whether she ever practiced medicine in North Carolina.  According to Wikipedia, (which is never wrong) Wos “prides herself on her work in the field of preventing HIV and AIDS.”  However, I was unable to find a single clinic in which Wos provided services.  While, generally, an “M.D.” automatically bestows a certain aura of understanding health care, I question whether this “M.D.” automatically has a working knowledge of billing for and receiving reimbursements under Medicaid in North Carolina.

Brajer: Hmmmm.  This one is more tricky. The two companies that Brajer owned, Pro-nerve LLC and LipoScience Inc., are health care related, in that Pro-nerve was an intraoperative neuromonitoring (IONM) company and LipoScience sold a diagnostic tool to health care providers.  Arguably, both companies are health care related, at least, in an ancillary way.  However, Brajer is not a health care professional, and, to my knowledge, has never rendered health care services. Furthermore, neither of Brajer’s companies was successful; quite the opposite is true, in fact. From my understanding, one company declared bankruptcy and the other was not far behind.  Which brings us to the next category…

Answer: Both…kinda.

2. A successful track record of his/her ability to manage large entities:

Wos: Prior to acting as the Secretary to DHHS, Wos served as the Ambassador to Estonia until 2006.  What she did besides political functions between 2006 and 2012, I do not know. Acting as an Ambassador does not entail managing large entities.  The most managerial skills that I can find in her background, prior to being appointed Secretary, are related to political fund-raising. Since I would not call her brief reign as Secretary of DHHS a success, I give Wos a “two thumbs down” on this criterion.

Brajer: He managed two companies.  We can bicker as to whether these companies should be considered large…neither employed 17,000 employees.  Regardless, the “successful” criterion appears to be lacking.

Answer: Neither…pickles.

3. An understanding of the Medicaid system:

Wos: “You’re asking me without having all the data available to answer a question,” she told lawmakers on October 8, 2013.  In her defense, she responded as such when asked whether the State was moving toward privatization for Medicaid.  No one could know the answer, except, maybe, McCrory.

On the other hand, the implementation of NCTracks was nothing short of a catastrophe of epic proportion. See blog. See blog.  Anyone with nominal knowledge of the Medicaid system would have, at least, paused to consider keeping HP Enterprises under contract during the switch to NCTracks or pushed back the go-live date.

Brajer: Unknown

Answer: Here’s to hoping that Brajer does.  I’m cheering for you! Go! Fight! Win!

4. A relationship with someone on Medicaid or a parent of someone on Medicaid:

Wos: Unknown.  If I were shaking a proverbial “8 Ball,” it would read, “Doubtful.”

Brajer: Unknown. Perhaps one of his former employees at Pro-nerve, LLC and LipoScience, Inc. is on Medicaid.

Answer: Gimme a ‘B’! B! Gimme a ‘R’! R! Gimme a ‘A’! A! Gimme a ‘J’! J! Gimme a ‘E’! E! Gimme a ‘R’! R! Whats that spell? Brajer!!

5.  A working knowledge of clinical coverage policies, reimbursement rates, and regulations surrounding Medicaid.

Wos: Unknown. Whatever Wos’ knowledge of regulations and clinical coverage policies is or lacked, she, initially, made up for any knowledge lacked with the key hire and quick resignation of Carol Steckel.  Unfortunately, Steckel’s experience was never replaced.

January 2013: “I am pleased to say that we are already taking steps to address some of these issues,” Wos said. “Now, the most important of this is that we have hired Ms. Carol Steckel, a nationally recognized — nationally recognized — expert in Medicaid to run our Medicaid program for the state. Carol is already moving ahead with systemic reviews of operations in this division. She is reviewing and establishing new policies and procedures.”

September 27, 2013: Steckel resigns. And blog.

Brajer: Unknown.

Answer: B! R! A! J! E! R! Let’s go, Brajer!

6. Both the capacities to listen and speak and do both eloquently.

Wos: Wos brandished an ability to speak publicly with ease.  Listening, on the other hand….eh?

Brajer: Unknown

Answer: I think you can, I think you can, I think you can…

7. Genuine concern about the physical and mental health of Medicaid recipients AND about providers PLUS have the patience to handle all types of demographic differences

Wos: She seems to think so. Her country club does not discriminate.

Brajer: Unknown

Answer: Go! Go! Go! Go! Go, Brajer!!

8. An understanding that he/she is handling tax payers money and that redundancy in staff is excess administrative costs and trim the meat

Wos: “My obligation as secretary is to find the best possible team in order to get the job done.”  Les Merritt served as CFO of DMA on a $300,000-plus contract.  Joe Hauck was paid over $228,000 for 6 months of advise to Wos.  Matt McKillip was paid $87,500 to serve as chief policy maker without any health care background.  Ricky Diaz pulled in $85,000 as communications director. Id.  Wos has handed out $1.7 million in pay hikes to 280 staffers, many with “no career or educational experience for the jobs they hold.” Id. The implementation of the MCOs also fell under Wos’ watchful eye.  The MCO system has created thousands upon thousands of high-paying jobs with our Medicaid dollars.  I believe that in the “trim the fat” category, Sec. Wos scores a goose egg.

Brajer: Unknown.

Answer: Please, Brajer! For the love of Pete!

9. Ability to communicate with both the Senate and the House and to be frank with both.

Wos: “Separation pay” v. “Severance pay?

In April 2013: “I think the word transparency can get pretty dangerous,” Wos said. “Because what does transparency mean? If transparency means that we’re in a planning process and you’re asking us, ‘Tell us all the things you’re planning,’ well, my goodness, allow us to work, and then we’ll give you everything that you want.”

Brajer: Unknown

Answer: Brajer, Brajer, He’s our man! If he can’t do it…[gulp].

____________________________________________

It concerns me that so many of future Sec. Brajer’s core abilities/habits to run and manage DHHS and the Medicaid program in a highly effective manner are unknown.  Nothing like placing all your money on red!  But we have HIGH hopes for Brajer!!!  Don’t let us down!!

The whole point of this blog is to pause and really contemplate what characteristics would comprise a great Secretary for DHHS. Obviously, the Governor has the full authority to appoint the Secretary, meaning that we taxpayers have little to no input as to whether we deem a person qualified, except in the indirect method of voting or not voting for the Governor.

Call this blog an exercise in examining what habits, if in existence, would make the most highly effective Secretary of DHHS and an opinion as to whether these habits exist in our former and future Secretaries.

We are cheering for Brajer!  But…

One fact about the future is that it is unknown.

Passing the Torch: Wos Resigns!! Brajer Appointed!

Aldona Wos resigned today after two years and seven months as Secretary of NC DHHS.  Wos’ last day will be Aug. 14.

McCrory named Rick Brajer, a former medical technology executive, as the new Secretary of DHHS.

Soon-to-be Sec. Brajer, 54, was the chief executive of ProNerve and LipoScience.  LipoScience was sold to LabCorp in 2014, and ProNerve was sold to Specialty Care in April.

Brajer is not a doctor, as Wos was.  Instead, Brajer touts an MBA from Stanford.

I do not have any information as to why Wos resigned now, especially in light of the recent resignation of the Secretary of Transportation, but will keep you apprised.

More to come….

Right Wing, Left Wing: Does It Equal a More Balanced Senate Bill 744?

Our Senate put forth Senate Bill 744 with radical and shocking changes to our Medicaid system. However, one section of our General Assembly cannot create law. Both sides,the Senate and the House, much agree on a Bill in order to create law.

Senate sent SB 744 to the House on May 31, 2014. Between May 31 through June 13, 2014, the House revised, omitted, and added language to SB 744, making SB 744 a much different document than what the Senate had fashioned. Today, SB 744 is back in the Senate for more revisions. The end result will be a law that appears nothing like the initial SB 744 brought to the Senate on May 15, 2014.

The “ping pong” revision system between the Senate and the House that our founding fathers installed in order to generate actual laws is a well-crafted, finely-tuned balancing machine. It is an effort to keep all ideological agendas in-check. When one side dips too low, the other side counters in an effort to maintain balance. It reminds me of a bird in flight.

Our nation’s symbol is the bald eagle. I am sure everyone knows that, right? But did you also know that the bald eagle is not named the bald eagle because its white head gives the appearance that it is bald? No, bald eagle, in Latin, is haliaeetus leucocephalus (from Greek hali-, which means sea; aiētos , which means eagle; leuco-, which means white, and cephalos, which means head). So, literally its name means “sea eagle with white head.”

Even more important about the bald eagle is its set of wings. A bald eagle has a right wing and a left wing, and without both, the bald eagle would not be able to fly.

We need both the right and the left wings in order to maintain balance in our government. Both sides are necessary, and, yet, it seems that nowadays the left and right sides are at war with each other. Politics has become so polarized that the right wing and the left wing forget the attributes of the other.

The result of the ping pong revision system, in theory, is that, by the time a bill is brought into final shape and enacted into law, all polarized ideations have been balanced out in order to move forward. It does not always work that way, and it becomes increasingly difficult to balance the sides when the sides become more and more divided.

The Senate created SB 744, the House has made its alterations…and, if SB 744 passes, it will pass after many more modifications, no doubt.

When our state Senate passed Senate Bill 744 and sent it to the House, I blogged about the shocking ramifications to Medicaid had that bill been passed.

I listed the most shocking changes included within SB 744:

1. DHHS must immediately cease all efforts to transition Medicaid to the affordable care organizations (ACOs) system that DHHS had touted would be in effect by July 2015;
2. DHHS, DMA will no longer manage Medicaid. Instead a new state entity will be formed to manage Medicaid. (A kind of…scratch it all and start over method);
3. All funds previously appropriated to DHHS, DMA will be transferred to Office of State Budget and Management (OSBM) and will be used for Medicaid reform and may not be used for any other purpose such as funding any shortfalls in the Medicaid program.
4. Categorical coverage for recipients of the optional state supplemental program State County Special Assistance is eliminated.
5. Coverage for the medically needy is eliminated, except those categories that the State is prohibited from eliminating by the maintenance of effort requirement of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Effective October 1, 2019, coverage for all medically needy categories is eliminated.
6. It is the intent of the General Assembly to reduce optional coverage for certain aged, blind, and disabled persons effective July 1, 2015, while meeting the State’s obligation under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the United States Supreme Court decision in Olmstead v. L.C. ex rel. Zimring, 527 U.S. 581 (1999).
7. Repeal the shared savings program and just reduce the reimbursement rates by 3%.
8. DHHS shall implement a Medicaid assessment program for local management entities/managed care organizations (LME/MCOs) at a rate of three and one-half percent (3.5%).
9. Additional notices as to State Plan Amendments (SPAs), DHHS must post the proposed SPAs on its website at least 10 days prior to submitting the SPAs to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).
10. Reimbursement rate changes become effective when CMS approves the reimbursement rate changes.
11. The Department of Health and Human Services shall not enter into any contract involving the program integrity functions listed in subsection (a) of this section that would have a termination date after September 1, 2015.
12. The Medicaid PROVIDER will have the burden of proof in contested case actions against the Department.
13. The Department shall withhold payment to any Medicaid provider for whom the DMA, or its vendor, has identified an overpayment in a written notice to the provider. Withholding shall begin on the 75th day after the day the notice of overpayment is mailed and shall continue during the pendency of any appeal until the overpayment becomes a final overpayment (can we say injunction?).

Since my last blog about Senate Bill 744 (the Appropriations Bill), Senate Bill 744 has reached its 7th revision.

The House took it upon itself to delete many of the shocking changes in the Senate Bill. Just like the bald eagle using its right and left wings to balance out.

First, the General Assembly’s proposed cease and desist order that would have stopped Gov. McCrory and Sec. Wos from implementing Medicaid reform and the accountable care organizations (ACOs), is deleted from the current version of the bill. Gone too is the “new state agency” created to manage Medicaid. Medicaid services are no longer eliminated. The Office of State Budget and Management (OSBM) is no longer receiving all funds appropriated for the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), Division of Medical Assistance (DMA).

On June 13, 2014, the House finished its revisions to SB 744 and sent the revised bill back to the Senate. On June 18, 2014, the conference committee for SB 744 was formed and includes:

  • Sen. Harry Brown, Chair
  • Sen. Andrew C. Brock
  • Sen. Kathy Harrington
  • Sen. Tom Apodaca
  • Sen. Ralph Hise
  • Sen. Neal Hunt
  • Sen. Phil Berger
  • Sen. Brent Jackson
  • Sen. Wesley Meredith
  • Sen. Louis Pate
  • Sen. Bill Rabon
  • Sen. Shirley B. Randleman
  • Sen. Bob Rucho
  • Sen. Dan Soucek
  • Sen. Jerry W. Tillman
  • Sen. Tommy Tucker

SB 744 is still not law. It takes both the House and Senate to pass the bill, and then the Governor has to sign the bill. So we have a ways to go. We need the agreement of the right wing and the left wing.

The two main political parties were not always so polarized.

A couple of our founding fathers, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, were fierce political adversaries. Imagine the political distance between Barack Obama and Ted Cruz. Despite their political differences, both Adams and Jefferson believed in the importance of funding public education. Rather than defaming the other’s point of view, Adams and Jefferson collaborated and compromised. “The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it,” wrote Adams. “There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves.” Adams and Jefferson were able to balance out the right wing and the left wing in order to fly a straight path.

Back when our founding fathers squabbled and debated key issues, both sides worked together, instead of running mudslinging commercials and scoffing at the other side’s position on the media. During one of the biggest debates in history, the creation of our government, the lawmakers convened together for about 4 months. The Constitutional Convention lasted from May 25 to September 17, 1787 (the first one). The delegates were within close proximity of one another, which led to more conversations and more compromises. Until the Constitution was drafted, the delegates continued to meet together. I imagine they ate lunch together and shared whiskey and cigars in the evenings.

Maybe our lawmakers should schedule a new constitutional convention, both on the state and federal level. At least, both sides need to realize that the right wing and the left wing are necessary. Otherwise we would just fly in circles.

NC Health Agency Mapping Medicaid Overhaul Plan

By EMERY P. DALESIO, Associated Press

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Gov. Pat McCrory’s health agency on Wednesday planned to unveil its latest version of ideas on how to change North Carolina’s $13 billion Medicaid health care system for about 1.7 million poor and disabled people.

The state Department of Health and Human Services was scheduled to present its framework for revamping Medicaid to an advisory group set up by McCrory. The plan could get some touch-ups before it’s presented to state lawmakers next month. The Legislature is expected to take up the proposed changes beginning in May.

It’s been almost a year since McCrory and state health Secretary Aldona Wos proposed largely privatizing management of Medicaid while keeping ultimate responsibility in state hands. About $3.5 billion of the shared state and federal program’s cost is paid by state taxpayers.

McCrory and Republican legislative leaders have blamed spiraling Medicaid costs left by preceding Democratic administrations for not providing teachers and state workers with raises last year. But Medicaid has also proved tough to manage under the GOP’s watch.

McCrory has said overhauling Medicaid is at the top of his legislative agenda and “may be the toughest battle” with lawmakers cool to earlier ideas to pay managed-care organizations a set fee and force them to work out how to deliver care within that budget.

The North Carolina Medical Society — which represents about 12,500 physicians and physician assistants in the state — the North Carolina Hospital Association, and other advocates for medical professionals and consumers have proposed a more conservative shifting of the risk for cost overruns.

The groups proposed expanding the more than 20 accountable care organizations already operating across North Carolina. The small networks of physicians or hospitals are paid by Medicaid for each procedure they perform. Organizations that meet savings and treatment goals get to keep a portion of the savings generated. If patient costs exceed standards, it must share losses with the state.

Problems in North Carolina’s Medicaid program have persisted for years and haven’t quit since McCrory took office last year and installed Wos as DHHS secretary.

A decision by the agency to delay recalculating Medicaid patient eligibility for three months could cost the state up to $2.8 million. Lawmakers have criticized the agency for not reporting those costs while they were developing the state budget last summer.

A group of North Carolina doctors filed a class-action lawsuit last month after flawed computer programs severely delayed payments they were due for treating Medicaid patients. The lawsuit alleges that managers at DHHS and its contractors were negligent in launching NCTracks, a nearly $500 million computer system intended to streamline the process of filing Medicaid claims and issuing payments.

The lawsuit alleged NCTracks’s software was riddled with thousands of errors that led to delays of weeks and sometimes months before doctors and hospitals received payment. That forced some medical practices to borrow money to meet payroll and others to stop treating Medicaid patients, the lawsuit said.

Earlier this month, DHHS announced it would spend up to $3.7 million on no-bid, personal service contracts with two firms that would advise the agency on running the Medicaid program. Internal McCrory administration memos released to The News & Observer of Raleigh describe understaffed and underskilled workers in the Medicaid division needing emergency help.

McCrory Administration Accused of Suppressing Insight into Medicaid

Whew…more bad press for the McCrory administration, Secretary Aldona Wos, Carol Steckel and the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). 

Ms. Rose Hoban, a journalist for North Carolina Health News, a website that I, personally, visit often, accuses the McCrory administration of suppressing information about Medicaid that, in her opinion, indicates that Medicaid was not as broken as the January 2013 Performance Audit conducted by Beth Wood, our State Auditor demonstrated.  According to Ms. Hoban, the McCrory administration suppressed the Medicaid information in order to push forward the McCrory administration’s intent to privatize Medicaid.

That is quite an accusation with immeasurable consequences if correct?  Right?

Did the McCrory administration suppress Medicaid information with the intent to push for privatization? I have no idea. 

Ms. Hoban suggests that Ms. Steckel’s revisions to the former administration’s responses to the Beth Wood audit on DHHS indicates the McCrory administration’s intentional suppression for a political reason.  I am not so sure that Steckel’s revisions to the former administration’s responses proves prima facie (on its face and without any other evidence) that the McCrory administration was “suppressing insight into Medicaid,” in order to privatize Medicaid… But, who knows???? 

According to Ms. Hoban’s article, another related article will be published in the future, so maybe she has more evidence to support the accusation. We shall see….

Here is Ms. Hoban’s article:

McCrory Administration Officials Suppressed Insight Into Medicaid

For months, members of the McCrory administration have maintained that the state’s Medicaid program is “broken.” But in the first of a two-part investigation, North Carolina Health News shows McCrory officials sat on information that would have depicted the state’s much-lauded Medicaid program in a better light.

By Rose Hoban

Soon after taking control in Raleigh in early 2013, people hired by Gov. Pat McCrory to run the Department of Health and Human Services made strategic edits to the departmental response to State Auditor Beth Wood’s audit of the North Carolina Medicaid program.

Documents obtained by North Carolina Health News through a public records request show that in January, incoming Sec. Aldona Wos and Medicaid head Carol Steckel eliminated detailed explanations of alleged high administrative costs, management problems and budget overruns in past years.

The resulting document accepts the criticism in Wood’s assessment wholesale and paints the health care program that covers 1.6 million North Carolinians as “broken.”

The criticisms contained in the audit have yielded talking points used by Wos, Steckel and McCrory for the past eight months as justification for turning down a federal expansion of the program under the Affordable Care Act and proposing to privatize the program.

State Auditor Beth Wood describes the results of her audit of the state Medicaid program, while Governor Pat McCrory listens.

State Auditor Beth Wood describes the results of her audit of the state Medicaid program, while Gov. Pat McCrory listens.

The original response to the audit created in December 2012 by outgoing officials from Gov. Bev Perdue’s administration was revised in successive editions of the document throughout January, with a decisive, near-final edit by Steckel.

In a document that displays “track changes” that include Steckel’s electronic signature, whole paragraphs were deleted, with evidence that, for example, North Carolina’s administrative costs are lower than most states rather than 30 percent higher, as maintained by McCrory administration officials.

Incoming administration officials also deleted whole sections explaining that budget overruns were in large part a function of under-budgeting by the General Assembly.

And in her first week in her new office, Steckel struck through paragraphs explaining that Community Care of North Carolina had been studied by two national groups that found cost savings. Instead, she inserted language casting doubt on the efficacy of CCNC and suggesting further study of the statewide program that’s been lauded nationally and that is being replicated in several states.

‘Administrative costs are 30 percent higher’

During a press conference to present the audit in January, Wood said her analysts had determined that North Carolina was spending significantly more on administrative costs than states with Medicaid programs of comparable size (see table, below).

“The administrative spending for the state’s medicaid program is 38 percent higher than the average of nine states with similarly sized Medicaid programs,” Wood maintained. “While those states on average have administrative costs of 4.5 percent, the state of North Carolina spent over 6 percent of its total budget on administrative cost. In real dollars that means that the state is spending $180 million more than the average of our peer states.”

For her analysis, Wood used information from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

In a February appearance before the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Health and Human Services, Steckel cast some doubt on those numbers, telling the committee that in many states administrative costs are hidden inside the contracts with managed care companies that run Medicaid programs.

Administrative cost comparison calculated by State Auditor's staff

Administrative cost comparison calculated by state auditor staff (screenshot from final audit)

“Actually, the administrative cost functions are in the managed care entities. And if you look at what is termed the ‘medical-loss ratio,’ which is what the managed care companies are allowed to use for administration, if you look at that for Arizona, their administrative costs would actually be 13.74 percent,” Steckel told the committee, explaining that the managed care company, rather than the state, was spending the administrative dollars.

Steckel may have gotten the Arizona figure from an analysis prepared by outgoing DHHS officials in December 2012. In the original departmental response to the state auditor’s report, which called Wood’s comparison “incomplete and misleading,” DHHS officials used actuarial data from national firm Milliman and from an Academy of Health report to calculate actual administrative overhead in the states Wood used in her comparison, including overhead from state expenditures and from managed care companies.

That table shows Arizona’s administrative expenditures at 13.74 percent.

When figures from all the states are tallied up and compared, North Carolina is among the lowest for administrative expenditures (see table and document, below).

Wos wrote in the final departmental response that DHHS agreed with Wood’s findings and recommendations on controlling administrative expenses.

During the press conference to announce the audit, Wos said, “Cost overruns will not be tolerated and will not be acceptable. There’s a budget for a reason, and we must adhere to this budget.”

Administrative cost comparison compiled by DHHS

Administrative cost comparison compiled by DHHS using data from July 2012 study by Milliman & Academy of Health report. Source: Issue Sheet 3, “Admin Costs w Responses,” dated Dec 18, 2012 (screenshot from document shown below).

Since release of the audit, Wos and McCrory have used Medicaid’s supposedly high administrative costs as talking points for problems in Medicaid; most recently, McCrory cited that figure in a September interview with Tom Campbell on NC SPIN.

“We had a more than $500-million overrun based on Gov Perdue’s projections on Medicaid, and our costs are 30 percent higher than other states in Medicaid administration,” McCrory told Campbell, “just basic operational issues.”

“The state overspent its Medicaid budget by $1.4 billion under the previous administration, and this administration thought that was indefensible,” wrote DHHS spokesman Ricky Diaz in response to a request for comment on this story.

Budget issues

Another talking point used by Wos and McCrory is the Medicaid budget overruns that have plagued the program over the past three fiscal years. Both have been quoted numerous times stating that Medicaid has been over budget by a total of $1.4 billion during that time period.

In the audit, Wood tallies the state budget overrun for the three years at $375 million, which includes federal matching funds to reach the $1.4 billion total. And Wood states that administrative overruns were the result of an “apparent lack of oversight.”

Initially, DHHS officials strongly disagreed with this assessment, writing that any exceeded budget amounts were due to “other factors such as consumption and price, not lack of oversight.… Since Medicaid is an entitlement program, the Division has little control over consumption.”

But this defense was edited out by Steckel, as evidenced in the tracked-changes version of the audit response dated Jan. 22, 2013. Steckel noted that telling Wood Medicaid is an entitlement would be “speaking out of school to the auditor.”

Steckel also deleted most of the language that provided any defense or explanation of departmental actions. In her edits, Steckel added that the department would be implementing a system where “we track contract requirements and expenditures on a weekly basis,” something DHHS officials had been doing since the previous summer, as noted in earlier versions of the document prepared by outgoing Perdue officials.

Perdue’s team had also included explanations of how the Office of State Budget and Management had been consulted on – and approved of  –  any overruns, explaining: “The Department cannot unilaterally expend funds beyond budgeted amounts.”

Later in the document, former officials argued that the department had repeatedly provided legislators, OSBM and the legislative Fiscal Research Division “with information regarding the inability to achieve savings included in the budget for [fiscal year] 2012-2013 as early as April, 2011.”

That was around the time former DHHS Sec. Lanier Cansler began sending letters to legislative leaders and to OSBM warning that budget targets were too low, essentially forcing DHHS to overspend its budget. Cansler sent letters in May and June, and again on Oct 27, 2011, when he wrote that “aggressive budget cuts mandated by the General Assembly’s budget are unreasonable and unattainable.”

In a letter to Speaker of the House Thom Tillis and Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger dated June 2, 2011, then-governor Perdue wrote that she believed the amounts budgeted for Medicaid were too low.

Perdue pointed out that since 2008, the state had grown by 400,000 people and the state was still struggling to emerge from the economic downturn that meant many workers lost insurance, with some of those workers and many of their children swelling Medicaid’s rolls.

“[Y]our budget relies on over $750 million in reductions to Medicaid over the course of the biennium,” Perdue wrote. “When the loss of Medicaid matching funds are accounted for, your cut is actually $2 billion in real money taken out of the North Carolina economy….

“It is anticipated that over $200 million of these reductions will not be achievable due to technical mistakes and overestimating of savings.”

But any references to departmental attempts to warn others outside DHHS of issues were edited out by Steckel. She also removed references to the fact that federal rules prohibit states from changing their Medicaid programs unilaterally; any rule changes require federal approval, which can take months, and those delays mean a state ends up spending at a higher rate than desired in the meantime.

Later, in sections of the audit that fault the Division of Medical Assistance for poor forecasting of expenditures, Steckel edited out the following: “The Department disagrees that actions were not taken to reduce expenditures to stay within budget. Despite the actions taken by the Department, estimates were exceeded largely due to factors outside the Department’s control. Medicaid is an entitlement program and changes require approval outside of the Division and the Department.”

Again, these explanations of budgeting procedure and warnings by DHHS to other branches of government were edited out by Steckel, adding to an overall impression of a rogue department that was spending out of control.

“North Carolina Medicaid is not broken,” argued John Oberlander, professor of social medicine at the UNC School of Medicine. “This is a contrived crisis.”

“They had a solution and they were looking for a problem. And they were looking to portray Medicaid in as negative a light as possible in order to justify what they wanted to do, which is privatize.”

But DHHS spokesman Diaz said administration officials “stand by our final responses to the audit.”

“We continue to update and improve the Department’s forecasting practices as we reform our state’s broken Medicaid system,” he said.

Part 2 (tomorrow) – Casting doubt on a national model

Steckel track changes edit, Jan 22, 2013