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New DHHS Director Still Scandal Free
After One Week
SCOTT D. YOST
August 28, 2014
New Guilford County Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Director Joe Raymond is getting what’s commonly called a baptism by fire.
As the brand new head of DHHS, Raymond, the former Forsyth County Department of Social Services (DSS) director, merely has to worry about hiring a new social services director, getting Guilford County social services back on track, and carrying out the consolidation of Guilford County’s Social Services and the Public Health departments into one of the largest human services departments in the state.
Oh yeah, and Raymond has arrived in Guilford County just in time to oversee the very complicated process of transitioning Medicaid applications to the state’s complex NC FAST system, as well as implementing the new Obamacare overhaul of procedures – both of which will happen at the same time this fall.
Other than that, the job should pretty much be a walk in the park.
When Raymond began his new job with Guilford County last week, on Monday, August 18, he instantly became one of the most powerful people in Guilford County administration, and he also likely became the county’s busiest man.
When asked if he’s worried about all this, Raymond said, “I’m concerned – in the right way.”
Raymond said there’s certainly a lot to do and think about in a short time period, so it makes sense, he said, to be concerned to the point that it helps prepare for the challenges.
Guilford County DHHS was formed in late May when the Guilford County Board of Commissioners voted to merge two of the county’s largest departments into one human services department with a budget of $101 million. As head of that department, Raymond oversees 920 employees – roughly 40 percent of all the employees that work for the county.
Raymond is jumping squarely into the center of a giant mess: an embattled problem-rich Guilford County social services branch that has key vacancies in top positions. Because of that, and the other challenges that are fast approaching, he’ll need to learn the ropes quickly, and he said he’s certainly had a lot to do in his first week on the job.
“It’s been a whirlwind,” Raymond said.
He said that, on the Sunday night before he started work for Guilford County, he was in his office in Forsyth County finishing things up there. He said he considered taking some time off in between jobs but quickly shot down that idea. Raymond said that, given the challenges facing Guilford County’s social services operations, he didn’t feel as though he had the luxury of taking a break between jobs.
“I thought about it,” he said of a little vacation time. “I didn’t think I could afford to do it.”
He said much of his first week in Guilford County has consisted of meeting human services staff and other department heads, as well as touring the county’s health and social services offices.
“I’ve tried to meet as many people as possible,” Raymond said, adding that he wants to get “a clear sense of the operation” before making changes.
As DHHS director, Raymond oversees both social services and public health. However, right now, Guilford County’s public health services is a fairly stable ship and longtime Guilford County Health Director Merle Green is running that side of DHHS. But when it comes to social services, the exact opposite is true. Former Social Services Director Robert Williams resigned amid scandal last March, one that revealed deep and wide problems in DSS.
Raymond’s initial focus has been almost entirely on the social services side ever since he arrived because, well, that’s where the fire is. He said that, since currently the DSS director position is unfilled, he is the director until the county hires one.
Raymond is the man responsible for choosing that director, and he’s on a fast timeline to get that done.
“We’re going to move quickly,” he said. “I’m hoping to have someone by September – the earlier in September the better.”
September, by the way, starts in a few days.
He said that, even before he began working for Guilford County, he asked the county to start the search to fill that job.
“I told them to go ahead and start recruiting and they did that,” Raymond said, adding that he hasn’t yet begun to make that decision, but he said he will focus on it shortly.
“I have not looked at the applicant pool,” Raymond said.
He added the he was interested in getting the “deepest, most diverse, pool of applicants that we can attract.”
Raymond said there’s no question social services is facing a host of troubling issues at the present time.
“I’ve got to get a handle on economic services,” he said.
That’s the arm of social services that distributes food stamps, and it’s the part of the former DSS that had a giant hidden backlog of applications that led to Williams’ departure. It’s also the area where the department is lacking high-level administrators because they have either jumped ship or been thrown overboard.
Raymond said that, though he has a lot of work to do, and he felt compelled to start right away, he was helped out a great deal by the work done by others over the past few months. He praised former Interim Director Sammy Haithcock – a former long-time DSS head for Durham County who was called in earlier this year to help fix some of Guilford County’s problems with social services.
“Sammy Haithcock did a great job,” Raymond said.
Raymond said that’s very important because nothing gets easier from here.
That’s particularly true with Obamacare and NC FAST coming on line at the same time this fall.
“It’s a complex thing,” Raymond said of the coming changes.
“If this is anything like the food stamp process, then we need to be ready,” he said.
He also said the coming transition wouldn’t be nearly so difficult if the county’s caseload were the same as it were in 2008, but he added that, from 2008 to 2013, the food stamp caseload in Guilford County doubled.
Raymond said one thing he can promise citizens is that he will do everything in his ability to promote “honest, ethical behavior and transparency” in Guilford County DHHS. If he does that it will be a far cry from what the department had in that regard in recent years under Williams.
He said he met with staff last week to hear their concerns and see what could be done to work together through the complex county transition. Raymond stressed to staff that he wanted everyone to feel comfortable opening up to him whenever there are problems.
“I told them to come to me at any point in time to ask questions and let me know something,” he said.
He added that he was “unambiguous” in letting them know that.
“Mistakes happen and we can correct them, but we can’t correct them if we don’t know about them,” Raymond said.
He also said he’s very optimistic about the prospects of consolidation and the opportunities that come with it.
“Each day, I’m more excited that I’m here,” he said.
“What we have to design is a very thoughtful planning process,” Raymond said. “This is not a simple process.”
He said it needs to be very deliberate and methodical, and he added that the pace of the consolidation is important since moving too fast can create additional problems.
“My first job is not to make things worse,” he said. “So we will need to go at a pace that sends that message, but that is not too slow.”
According to Raymond, Guilford County offers a unique challenge because it has social services and public health offices in both Greensboro and High Point, and he said he’s still trying to discover any “cultural differences” between the two locations.
Raymond, who’s being paid $160,000 as the DHHS director, has more than 30 years of experience in human services management, and he has held top-level positions in state government, local government and private-sector organizations.
Before Raymond was the social services director in Forsyth County, he was the director of social services in Pamlico County, which as one might expect on the Pamlico Sound and the home of Oriental, known as “the sailing capital of North Carolina.” He served in that same capacity in Onslow County, another coastal county, which has Jacksonville as the county seat.
Raymond was appointed to serve as the executive director of a branch of the Maryland Department of Human Resources. Following that, Raymond served as the chief executive officer of the Georgia Academy, a nonprofit organization that consults on matters related to social services. Then, nearly a decade ago, he was hired as the social services director in Forsyth County.
Hopefully all that experience will pay off for Guilford County as Raymond takes on the difficult task of creating a department that is unified in practice rather than just in name.
“We don’t know what it’s going to look like down the road,” he said of a consolidated DHHS.
“I want to think in organizational terms and be clear about joint goals and measurable results.”
He said that “technology and co-location” will play a role in consolidation, as will the question of whether client intake can be unified into a single “portal” for social services and health services alike.
He said many things will be affected by that conversion, but added that some services lend themselves to remaining relatively independent.
“Some are better as silos,” he said.
He said one thing he’d like to see tried in Guilford County are programs that attempt “prevention” on the social services side. He said county health departments often focus on the prevention of disease and other health problems; however, he thinks that same prevention model could work in social services. For instance, Raymond said, it would be interesting to see how effective DHHS could be in the prevention of child abuse – rather than just being an agency that comes in after child abuse has occurred and attempts to manage the damage.
“There really hasn’t been that much of that,” he said.
He also said that neighborhood-based programs that take the social services and health services out into the community could be beneficial in Guilford County.
Guilford County Commissioner Ray Trapp, who served on the Board of Social Services before it was disbanded, said he hadn’t yet spoken with Raymond, but he wanted the county to give him the tools he needed to succeed. Trapp said that may mean giving the department temporary labor to help in the crunch of the Medicaid and Obamacare transition.
In addition to having a master’s degree from Harvard, Raymond is a huge Bruce Springsteen fan, as Rhino readers discovered a few weeks ago when Raymond was named to the new job.
Clearly the hardest question the Rhino Times asked this week was which Bruce Springsteen album was his favorite. He said it was very difficult to pick one favorite Springsteen album because there were so many that he loved.
“That is such a hard question,” an obviously agonized Raymond said.
However, when pressed, he said he’d probably have to go with 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town.
When asked what he thought of the previous story in which the Rhino Times ran Raymond’s picture next to Bruce Springsteen’s, Raymond had a humble response.
“I don’t belong beside Bruce Springsteen,” Raymond said.