When Greensboro resident Aldona Wos was appointed secretary of the state Department of Health & Human Services, she agreed to a yearly salary of $1.
Wos has enough personal wealth to afford such a charitable gesture. But it was hard not to be inspired by her sense of duty and self-sacrifice, and her fierce devotion to the job.
As for tangible results, well, that was another matter. Despite her background as a physician and former U.S. ambassador— and her famous, sunrise-to-late-night work ethic — the sheer weight of the DHHS bureaucracy seemed to overwhelm Wos.
In time, critics on both sides of the partisan aisle began to wonder out loud if they were getting their money’s worth.
Now, after two and half years at the post, Wos is leaving, Gov. Pat McCrory announced at a Wednesday news conference in Raleigh. Standing at his side, Wos noted it was “time to go home.” Although the governor tearfully praised Wos’ job performance and commitment — as he has all along — her tenure has been wracked by a series of missteps and crises, large and small:
l The botched launch of NC Tracks, the software program that processes Medicaid enrollments and payments.
l A massive food stamp processing backlog in 2014, including serious problems in Guilford County that cost the local social services director his job.
l A half-dozen state audits since 2013 that have questioned DHHS’s ability to administer the state’s Medicaid program.
l The hiring of a woman who opposed the existence of prekindergarten programs — to head the state’s prekindergarten program.
l The mailing of nearly 49,000 children’s insurance cards to the wrong addresses, 2,129 of them in Guilford County, exposing names, dates of birth and Medicaid numbers.
l High turnover among key employees, including three Medicaid directors over the last three years.
l An audit that suggested nepotism and conflicts of interest.
In one case, Wos hired as a consultant a man who had worked for a company owned by her husband. Joe Hauck was a contract employee at DHHS for 11 months at a salary of $310,000, leaving only two memos totaling slightly more than three pages, plus spreadsheets, as documentation of his work. In another, a state audit revealed in May that a recently retired DHHS manager had hired and overpaid several employees with whom she had personal ties, including her ex-husband, her ex-husband’s wife; her daughter; and her hairdresser’s sister.
In fairness, DHHS was a bloated tangle of inefficiency and poor management well before Wos got there. And there have been accomplishments on her watch, most notably the recent announcement that the state’s Medicaid program ended the fiscal year with a surplus of more than $130 million.
Wos will work two more weeks before her successor, Richard Brajer, 54, will bring to the post the kind of administrative experience Wos lacked. Brajer’s background as a CEO in the health care industry with a Stanford MBA better suits him for the job, which consumes 25 percent of state tax dollars and spends $20 billion a year in state and federal funds.
Wos’ problems recall another star-crossed DHHS secretary. Carmen Hooker Odom oversaw a disastrous attempt at mental health reform whose effects are still being felt today. Odom, who was picked for the job by Gov. Mike Easley, a Democrat, resigned in 2007. Both Wos and Odom were political appointments.
Wos will leave knowing she gave her all to a position for which a warm heart and good intentions were not enough. “It has been a long two years and seven months,” she told reporters Wednesday, as if she were counting the minutes.