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Morning Memo: Hagan gets opponent; Records show deeper DHHS troubles

KAY HAGAN GETS A FEISTY CHALLENGER: All the attention is focused on the Republicans vying to replace Democrat Kay Hagan in the U.S. Senate. But Hagan, too, will face a primary challenger. The Fayetteville Observer reports that Fred Westphal, a retired educator from outside Fayetteville, plans to make a bid. And he’s mighty sure of his chances. "She doesn’t have a chance against me," Westphal, 76, told The Fayetteville Observer. "She won’t get the party nomination."

INTERNAL EMAILS SHED MORE LIGHT ON DHHS TROUBLES: The state agency overseeing the new computer system that sends money to health professionals treating poor patients downplayed problems with the software even as complaints rolled in to Gov. Pat McCrory’s office from doctors, dentists and medical equipment companies.

Correspondence obtained by The News & Observer from McCrory’s office show that complaints were flowing in from frustrated health care providers, with some appealing directly to his chief of staff and his lawyer, by the end of July. Those complaints were passed on to the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the system. On Aug. 5, DHHS sent out the news release "NCTracks is on Track."

***Read more from the DHHS records and get a full political news roundup below in the Dome Morning Memo.***

Teachers group pushes for DHHS salary investigation

The North Carolina Association of Educators called for an investigation Tuesday into raises granted Gov. Pat McCrory’s former campaign aides after the governor called for a freeze on wage hikes.

It’s the legislature’s job to examine “the glaring scandal over taxpayer-funded pay raises,’ said NCAE President Rodney Ellis at a news conference Tuesday morning outside the Legislative Building.

Public attention has focused on two 24-year-old McCrory campaign staffers, Ricky Diaz and Matt McKillip, who went on to work at the state Department of Heath and Human Services for salaries of $85,000 and $87,500.

McCrory has used cost overruns in Medicaid to explain why teachers did not get raises this year, Ellis said, yet the same agency that runs Medicaid is “granting huge raises for the politically connected.”

Morning Memo: Hold the fries; striking workers, a challenge to Ellmers and more pay questions

It may be harder to get your burger fix today. Fast food workers from about 30 chain restaurants in the Triangle are planning to walk off the job and march to the Martin Street Baptist Church. Welcome to Dome's Morning Memo.

NOT SO FAST FOOD TODAY: Fast food workers say they can't pay their rent and must rely on food stamps to feed their families. Among those planning to strike today an Army veteran who has lost her home. Strikers want higher wages and the right to form a union. Similar walkouts have been staged across the country this year. Full story.

1377778112 Morning Memo: Hold the fries; striking workers, a challenge to Ellmers and more pay questions The News and Observer Copyright 2011 The News and Observer . All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

DHHS staffers told they're going to be 'at will' employees

Dr. Aldona Wos, state Health and Human Services secretary, sent email to some agency staff yesterday telling them they're going to become "at will" employees, meaning they will no longer protected under the state Personnel Act.

The Republican legislature gave GOP Gov. Pat McCrory about 1,500 more patronage positions than Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat, had.

It is not known how many at DHHS received the email and what positions they hold. (Read the email below.)

These DHHS guests should stay outside, top official wrote

Progress NC Action, a political group opposed to the Republican governor and legislature, sent an email notice to supporters early Wednesday morning saying the group would deliver a petition with 19,000 signatures to Dr. Aldona Wos, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services at 10:30.

The petitions asks Wos to rescind the 35 percent and 37 percent raises two 24-year-old staff members received this year. Agency spokesman Ricky Diaz is making $85,000, and Matt McKillip makes $87,500.

Shortly after that notice, Wos chief of staff Mark Payne sent an email to DHHS employees telling them to be courteous to people affiliated with Progress NC because "they are guests on our campus."

But if the visitors stop any employee from getting to or from the office, the State Capitol Police should be called, Payne wrote.

Petitioners should not be allowed in any buildings, Payne wrote.

Morning Memo: 'Moral Mondays' grow; McCrory defends pay hikes

’MORAL MONDAY’ PROTESTS EXPAND: Moral Monday, the North Carolina protest movement that comes to Charlotte on Monday afternoon, was organized to counter the policies of the Republican-controlled General Assembly.The protests, which have received national attention, are not only grounded in religion but expanding their reach into churches. Organizers say they seek to reclaim the language of political morality.

Protesters from the Charlotte area are to gather in Marshall Park at 5 p.m. Elsewhere in the state, similar protests are scheduled Monday in the Yancey County town of Burnsville and in coastal Manteo. Read more here.

GOV. HUNT TELLS DEMOCRATS TO DO MORE: Former Gov. Jim Hunt delivered a pep talk to grassroots leaders of the state’s beleaguered Democratic Party on Saturday night, where he emphasized the basics of winning elections. Hunt told the crowd at a reception named partly in his honor to appeal to independent voters, run good candidates and raise money. "We’re not exactly the party of money," Hunt said, "but we can do more than we’ve done."

***Hear more from the Democratic Party meeting and get the latest N.C. political news below in the Dome Morning Memo.***

Morning Memo: N.C. Dems host muted event; McCrory explores gambling deal

N.C. DEMS HOST MUTED CONFAB: The N.C. Democratic Party hosts its executive committee meeting Saturday in Greensboro but the fanfare from years past is missing. The evening Sanford Hunt Frye Dinner is merely a reception this year. The event is typically one of the party's larger fundraisers and Massachusettes Gov. Deval Patrick served as keynote speaker in 2012. This year, no headliner as a speaker and U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan isn't even attending. It speaks to the party's still weakened status and lack of defining political leadership. A Democratic spokesman said the party opted for a reception because of the party's meeting is expected to last until 5 p.m. (But as anyone who has attended these in the past knows, they alwasy run long.) Former Gov. Jim Hunt and former state Supreme Court Justice Henry Frye, the event's namesakes, will address the party faithful.

McCRORY ADMINISTRATION EXPLORES MOVE TO EXPAND GAMBLING IN NORTH CAROLINA: Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration is considering a potential deal to allow a South Carolina-based Indian tribe to open a casino just across the border in North Carolina in a move that is generating swift and fierce opposition from top Republican lawmakers. A new effort to expand gambling operations in the state could net North Carolina millions of dollars under a revenue-sharing agreement with the Catawba Indian Nation.

But it would carry significant political risk for McCrory, pitting the Republican governor against members of his own party.

***Read more on the potential casino deal below in the Dome Morning Memo.***

DHHS emphasizes there's no abortion clinic crackdown

As The N&O reported Friday, the state Department of Health and Human Services has at least temporarily closed three abortion clinics in the past three months. Before this year, the state had only closed two clinics in 14 years.

DHHS says that’s a coincidence. This year has brought intense debate over a new law regulating abortion clinics, and top GOP officials were kept apprised of at least one of the closings. But state health regulators say they aren’t cracking down.

“As inspection reports show, when egregious violations that pose an immediate threat to patient health and safety are found, department inspectors do their job and act to protect North Carolinians from harm – regardless of politics and what is in the news,” DHHS spokesman Ricky Diaz said in an email Saturday. “There has been no change in policy or procedure, and there was no directive to increase inspections or closures of abortion facilties.”

Diaz notes that the Charlotte clinic closed earlier this year has reopened, and the other two – the Baker Clinic in Durham and Femcare Inc. in Asheville – can reopen if they correct their deficiencies.

The N&O story noted that the department characterized the closures as resulting from routine inspections. But Diaz felt that didn’t adequate emphasize the health agency’s denial of having a political agenda.

Insurance claims clearinghouse worries new Medicaid system not ready

An insurance claims clearinghouse that works with North Carolina healthcare providers is worried about the state's new Medicaid payment system.

As first reported in the Triangle Business Journal, an executive with Florida-based Availity wrote a letter to state Department of Health and Human Services Services Secretary Aldona Wos saying the company has not been given "numerous operational details" about the system.

Providers file insurance claims with Availiity, which then submits them for processing. The letter's author, Availity senior vice president of provider solutions Scott Herbst, declined through a company spokeswoman to be interviewed.

The state Department of Health and Human Services will switch to the new system July 1.

Big raise for DHHS budget manager

On March 8, Gov. Pat McCrory sent a memo to state agencies telling them to hold off giving raises because the state needed money to pay for Medicaid.

About five weeks later, the budget director at Department of Health and Human Services received a $30,660 raise.

Jim Slate's salary jumped to $144,000 a year. The reason for the raise was "career progression."

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