DHHS admits violation of federal privacy laws
RALEIGH — North Carolina health officials say human error in computer programing is to blame for last week's massive privacy breach where cards with the personal information of nearly 49,000 children receiving Medicaid benefits were mailed to the wrong addresses.
A statement issued by the state Department of Health and Human Services on Monday said a computer program developed to extract information from a state Medicaid database to generate the mass mailing utilized the incorrect name and addresses for the children's parents or guardians.
The cards include the children's names, Medicaid identification numbers, dates of birth and the names of their primary care doctors. The cards did not include the children's Social Security numbers.
Monday's statement acknowledged for the first time that the error violated federal privacy laws requiring such personal medical information to be kept confidential. New cards with newly generated Medicaid numbers will be sent to the affected families, who were advised to monitor their credit for potential fraud or identity theft.
Those who received the mismailed cards are being asked to destroy them.
DHHS Secretary Aldona Wos has asked the state Office of Information Technology Services to conduct an external review of the processes and procedures that led to the breach to ensure a similar incident cannot happen again, according to the statement. Wos also instructed the agency's human resources office to conduct an investigation for potential personnel action against the state employees involved in the incident.
The statement included was no direct comment from Wos, a Greensboro doctor and wealthy Republican donor tapped by Gov. Pat McCrory to lead the agency.
The erroneously addressed cards are the latest miscue at DHHS since Wos took the helm last year, including the troubled launch of a pair of computer programs that handle Medicaid enrollments and payments. Wos has also faced questions about high pay for contractors with close ties to the Republican Party and young ex-GOP campaign staffers hired for senior level positions despite little experience.
At a media conference on Monday, McCrory stood by his embattled health secretary. He said the "operational breakdowns" at the agency go back to the terms of his Democratic predecessors and pointed out the new Medicaid cards were being issued because of expanded Medicaid eligibility requirements under the federal Affordable Care Act, which he opposes.
"I'm confident in Secretary Wos and her staff," McCrory said. "I know they are working hard to resolve this issue. ... We continue to have issues with operations not only in DHHS but in several departments that have been plaguing state government for well over a decade. It shows we still have a lot of work to do."
McCrory campaigned for governor in 2012 by hammering Democrats for the state's "broken" government and telling voters he would use his private-sector business experience to clean up the mess. Asked after a year in office how long he anticipated it might take to fix the recurring dysfunction at DHHS, McCrory replied: "We're doing it as quickly as possible."
"I think some great progress is being made, while we continue to have some serious problems," he said. "And I'm not going to brush over the serious problems."
Democratic leaders in the state House and Senate pounced on the error. Without mentioning Wos by name, they called on McCrory to "get his administration in order and bring in someone at DHHS who can simply do the job."
"There's no question that the challenges faced by DHHS are significant and complex," said Democratic House Leader Larry Hall of Durham. "That is all the more reason that the agency requires competent leadership with meaningful professional experience. Unfortunately, Governor McCrory only saw fit to hire political donors and campaign aides - all at the expense of families and small businesses across North Carolina."