RALEIGH — In Congress, the drama of a committee hearing where lawmakers get into confrontational question-and-answer sessions with those testifying before them are not so unusual.
In the North Carolina General Assembly, that kind of contentiousness is rare.
Any browbeating of state bureaucrats or industry representatives typically takes place somewhere outside of public view.
When such a public flogging does happen in the legislature’s committee rooms, it often means something more than the words expressed at the time.
Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos was recently the subject of such a public browbeating.
Wos has been no stranger to the Legislative Office Building, where a lot of the committee meetings take place.
She has had to answer tough questions about a backlog of Medicaid claims under a new software system, faced similar questions about food stamps, been queried about Medicaid cost overruns, and responded to inquiries about overall operations within her department.
Wos also has appeared before lawmakers to try to sell Medicaid reforms.
An earlier meeting about the troubled Medicaid claims system had all the trappings of a showdown.
Medical providers showed up to provide concrete examples of how they weren’t being paid for services, and a representative of the computer software company responsible for the glitches faced some questioning himself.
By and large, though, legislators were pretty civil to Wos.
She didn’t get the same treatment last week.
In tense exchanges, legislators hammered her over continuing problems with the claims system, over her inability to fill key jobs at the agency, over a Medicaid budget shortfall now projected to go as high as $140 million.
“How can we as a General Assembly feel safe or comfortable that you can implement a reform package when we still have all these problems?” asked Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown, an Onslow County Republican.
Ostensibly, most of the consternation from legislators had to do with the likelihood that the Medicaid program will again cost more than the legislative-approved budget set out for it.
It also is now obvious that Senate leaders aren’t on board with the department’s Medicaid reform ideas.
After the meeting, Senate leader Phil Berger deflected questions from the media about whether legislative leaders have lost confidence in Wos.
He was being nice.
Legislators are obviously more worried than ever that Wos isn’t up to the job.
The previous regime of departmental managers whom she either ran off on purpose or who left because of her leadership style may not have been perfect, but trying to run a multi-billion dollar state agency with the immediate loss of their expertise has proved daunting.
That Wos failed to recognize that would occur has been her undoing.
She can talk about the department being in “crisis mode” upon arriving. If so, what do you call it now?
Last week’s grilling is difficult to see as anything other than a message that some portion of the legislative leadership wants Wos gone and is willing to make her life uncomfortable until that happens.