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Troubled DHHR targeted in WV governor's race

West Virginia government's largest agency is now an election hot potato.

While the state Department of Health and Human Resources hasn't shown up yet in campaign ads - the gold standard of what campaigns think is relevant to voters - both Democrat Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and Republican challenger Bill Maloney have had to talk about the unwieldy and troubled agency.

DHHR has about 5,700 employees and oversees about $3.7 billion a year, though most of that money is federal. The department is responsible for everything from permits to water wells to welfare programs, a point Tomblin made in a recent interview.

But DHHR has been publicly plagued by problems this year. Among them:

 

  • On Tuesday, DHHR's two senior lawyers sued the department. They claim the agency's acting secretary retaliated against them when they tried to prevent wrongdoing and waste. After the lawyers were placed on paid leave, the department awarded a multimillion-dollar marketing contract to the highest bidder. The two lawyers now say they are whistleblowers.
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  • A few weeks ago, the Legislative Auditor's Office said the department might not be doing enough to protect the state's interests as it prepares to award a $200 million, 10-year computer system contract.
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  • Federal auditors found the state's foster care program has not complied with requirements to receive federal assistance, so the state had to repay $200,000 to the federal government in 2011.
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    As a result, Tomblin and Maloney have been asked twice in recent days if the department needs to be broken up so someone can get their arms around it. State legislators bounced that idea around in 2009 but it went nowhere.

    The agency was created in an effort to save money and end duplication, but the burden on its secretary is enormous. It may not help that a whistleblower lawsuit against Acting Secretary Rocco Fucillo and other DHHR officials suggests Fucillo was absent or uninterested about the marketing contract during key moments.

    Maloney has criticized the Tomblin administration for allowing Fucillo to work part of the time from near his home in Clarksburg and be compensated for commuting to Charleston. That arrangement has since ended, even though Maloney has repeated his criticism in recent days.

    But neither candidate has said the agency needs to be broken up.

    Tomblin said programs are so intertwined they need one person to help oversee them.

    "There's a lot of interconnectivity between the programs," Tomblin said during Tuesday's televised debate with Maloney.

    Maloney said the agency is "probably the worst for political cronyism and nepotism," but he said the agency needs to "promote from within" and the governor needs to stop hiring consultants.

    "You're saying if you were governor you wouldn't look for any expert advice?" Tomblin asked Maloney during the debate.

    DHHR employs a number of consultants that cost the state tens of millions of dollars. Tomblin also recently hired an auditor to examine the agency and other state health programs, an apparent attempt to revaluate its operations.

    "Listen, if you ask the folks that are doing the job - I had employees, they know how to do that job - you don't need to hire all these high-priced consultants that are related to somebody or there's some backroom deal," Maloney said. "You know about them. I can't keep track of them."

    Tomblin has called for an expeditious resolution of the dust-up between the whistleblowers and Fucillo over the marketing contract.

    "As far as the allegations of any wrongdoing, those are being looked at by the appropriate authorities," Tomblin said during the debate. "When those investigations are complete, I will take the appropriate action at that particular time."

    But the whistleblower lawsuits allege that an internal investigation by DHHR has violated state law and is being used as another means to continue the agency's retaliatory actions.

    Contact writer Ry Rivard at ry.rivard@dailymail.com or 304-348-1796. Follow him at www.twitter.com/ryrivard.

     


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