DHHS expands communication staff

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The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services is expanding its internal communications group, including establishing a subunit of three employees dedicated to its Medicaid privatization effort.

An internal memo sent Oct. 24 by communications Director Ricky Diaz listed its staff at 24, including six vacancies that are expected to be filled.

The expansion was first reported Friday by N.C. Policy Watch, a left-leaning advocacy group that made a public-records request for the memo.

There has been no formal announcement of the changes. When contacted Monday, Diaz declined to answer questions about the cost of the salaries to fill the six vacant jobs and the communications office’s overall payroll.

DHHS spokeswoman Julie Henry said the changes “are simply a functional realignment of existing positions and do not represent any net new jobs at DHHS.” Henry said the department is following state personnel laws and policies in filling the vacant jobs and the salaries for each position.

“DHHS actually has less staff and is spending less on salaries than under the previous administration,” Henry said.

John Sweeney, a marketing professor at UNC Chapel Hill, said he does not know whether a 24-person communications department is appropriate for a state government department.

“I do know that all 24 will need to have substantial qualifications and experience in the area they are hired,” Sweeney said. “If not, suspicion and criticism are completely necessary to safeguard the taxpayers’ money.”

Diaz is one of two former McCrory campaign workers whose salaries have been scrutinized, along with current and former contractors to DHHS. Diaz, 24, received a $23,000 raise in April, bringing his annual pay to $85,000, which is more than the top listed salary for his position.

Ryan Tronovitch, a spokesman for McCrory, deferred questions on the communications office to Diaz.

Diaz said in the memo the four groups were put together “because DHHS faces both internal and external communications challenges that are unique to state government.”

Diaz listed four divisions: press; legal communications; public relations; and marketing. Press and legal communication has one person listed, while the public relations team has 13 and marketing seven. Two of the positions for the Medicaid privatization effort — listed under public relations — were listed as vacant.

Diaz defined public relations as focused on “providing strategic communication support for the department and its key projects and initiatives” and “anticipating, analyzing and responding to public opinion and issues that might impact, good or bad, the operations and plans of the department.”

Diaz defined marketing as focused on “promoting projects, services and initiatives through mediums such as the web, social media, graphics and e-mailing marketing” and “ensuring that our messages are reaching the right people at the right place at the right time.”

A health care advocate criticized the communications unit expansion.

“The most effective strategy that DHHS should employ to improve public opinion is to focus on improving access to services,” said Vicki Smith, executive director of Disability Rights NC. ‘Until they do that, everything else is just window dressing.”

The focal point of Gov. Pat McCrory’s privatization plan, announced in February, is putting three to four for-profit companies or nonprofit providers in charge of all aspects of the state’s $13 billion Medicaid program — physical, behavioral and dental — by July 1, 2015. The providers would offer statewide coverage.

The DHHS and Secretary Dr. Aldona Wos have come under criticism, including from at least three Forsyth County legislators, for a lack of clarity and no timetables for fixing major problems with the state Medicaid program, including its payment-processing system NC Tracks. The agency also has had several high-level officials depart this year, including Medicaid Director Carol Steckel.

Wos’ privatization plan is supposed to be presented to the General Assembly on March 17.

McCrory and the Republican-led General Assembly rejected plans to expand Medicaid, citing concerns about whether the federal government would be able to meet its financing obligations. Diaz has said that McCrory’s position is “that before the state can consider expanding Medicaid, we must first reform the system to improve the quality of care while controlling costs.”

“Instead of reducing costs to put resources toward fixing things that Gov. McCrory has said are broken, they are going to try to PR their way out of it,” said Adam Searing, an analyst with the left-leaning Progressive Pulse.

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