U.S. Markets open in 1 hr 56 mins

Wos says July 1 stays goal for NC Medicaid project

Gary d. Robertson, Associated Press

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) -- The North Carolina state department that operates Medicaid and other health programs has created a new position to manage and modernize aging computer networks five months before an expensive and critical billing system is supposed to go live.

Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Aldona Wos said Monday she's hired a longtime banking technology expert as its new chief information officer. Joseph Cooper Jr., who's worked for Bank of America, First Citizens Bank and most recently RBC Bank USA, will take the newly created post in a department already facing challenges within information technology for Medicaid.

The state Department of Health and Human Services has more than 17,000 employees and needed someone to bring efficiency to its vast computer networks and systems, Wos said in an interview.

"Our IT structure is very complicated with very many specific projects," Wos said, adding: "It is a huge undertaking."

Wos and State Chief Information Officer Chris Estes said the agency is being hamstrung by outdated software programs and the inability for divisions to exchange easily information that can be analyzed to make decisions on spending and programs.

Cooper, who will make $175,000 annually, will arrive in early February likely to focus upon ensuring that a new Medicaid billing system that's been almost nine years in the making is completed and operational July 1.

"That is our goal, and that is our priority for the department to do everything that we can to meet that deadline," said Wos, a Greensboro physician hired by new Republican Gov. Pat McCrory.

GOP legislators have been skeptical about the replacement Medicaid Management Information system following a state audit initially unveiled in December 2011 critical of project management in Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue's administration.

The current billing system, managed by HP Enterprise Services, processes 88 million claims and writes $11 billion in checks annually to cover more than 1.5 million Medicaid enrollees. Computer Sciences Corp. is building the new system, the completion of which is two years behind schedule. The audit said the project has cost more than twice the original price tag of $265 million. State regulations have said thousands of software changes needed to comply with federal and state laws have contributed in part to higher costs.

Wos said an outside adviser the agency hired to scrutinize the billing system project and reveal any unforeseen obstacles to meet the goal will complete her work this week. For now, Wos said she would be surprised if the consultant uncovers something that would scuttle the project altogether. But she said system alterations will have to be made even after July 1.

"It is not going to be perfect, so everyone has to know that," Wos said. The billing system still will have to be certified by federal regulators.

McCrory mentioned IT challenges Monday morning when he gave a pep talk to several hundred HHS employees inside the gymnasium at the old Dorothea Dix mental hospital. About 1,800 state employees still work on the Dix campus.

"I'll be frank with you. I've never seen such a broken information systems operation until I came here," the governor said. He added: "That's not a reflection on the people in this (agency), but you have a broken system right now."