By Lawrence Messina
Former hospital executive and nurse Karen Bowling will become West Virginia’s Health and Human Resources secretary on July 1, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said Wednesday, taking over a sprawling department recently scrutinized by an audit and assigned the daunting task of expanding the state’s Medicaid program.
The Wyoming County native will succeed acting Secretary Rocco Fucillo, a department veteran who stepped in when poor health forced Michael Lewis to retire in June 2012. Fucillo’s brief tenure was marked by a lawsuit from two top department officials who allege they were disciplined for raising concerns about an advertising contract. One of those officials has since been fired, along with a third department deputy involved in the contract dispute.
Tomblin spokeswoman Amy Shuler Goodwin said Fucillo will help Bowling take the reins over the next several weeks.
“I know that Karen Bowling will want to tap into Rocco’s great knowledge and talent,” Goodwin said Wednesday.
Pledging to aid Bowling’s transition, Fucillo said in a statement that he “will also consider my family’s and my best interests as I look at future opportunities.”
To aid the search for a permanent secretary, the Legislature agreed last month to nearly double its annual salary from $95,000 to $175,000. Goodwin said the governor’s office interviewed several candidates for the job, not all of them West Virginians.
Bowling has an associate, bachelor’s and master’s degree in nursing, with the graduate degree also in primary health care, according to information provided by Tomblin’s office. The 55-year-old earned both that and her bachelor’s degree from West Virginia University, and the governor’s office said she was first in her family to graduate from college. She has been pursuing a doctoral degree with Capella University, a for-profit distance learning institution that offers online coursework.
Bowling was chief executive of Raleigh General Hospital, part of the LifePoint Hospitals network, from 2002 until late 2010. She chaired the West Virginia Hospital Association toward the end of her time as CEO, and held other leadership roles in that trade group.
More recently, Bowling served as health sciences dean at Mountain State University. Named to that post in February 2011, Bowling has since helped the University of Charleston absorb the Beckley campus and its health programs after Mountain State lost its accreditation and closed in January.
Tomblin cited in Thursday’s announcement how Bowling has volunteered as a family nurse practitioner at the West Virginia Health Right clinic.
“Karen’s commitment to the health and wellbeing of her community has been evident throughout her career and her community involvement,” the governor said.
With a nearly $4 billion annual budget and more than 5,700 full-time employees, Health and Human Resources oversees an array of services including foster care, infectious disease prevention, child support enforcement and anti-smoking efforts. The department’s biggest program is Medicaid, which provides health care to more than 307,000 West Virginians. Tomblin recently agreed to heed provisions of the federal health care law and expand coverage to more low-income residents starting next year. The move is expected to increase Medicaid’s rolls by more than 91,500 people.
The governor also commissioned an audit that found West Virginia with some of the worst health outcomes among the states, even though it ranks fourth for public health care funding per person. Urging an overhaul of the department and health services generally, that study recommended 78 ways to revamp Health and Human Resources at a potential savings of nearly $284 million over five years.
Finding some agencies overburdened and others underused, the audit called for reorganizing most into two divisions each led by a deputy secretary while shutting down or combining several others. Released earlier this month, the report also details how high turnover, hundreds of unfilled jobs and rising overtime costs combine to hamper the department’s efforts.
Compared to a national average of 3.3 percent, department turnover is 30 percent, the audit said. With a cumbersome, months-long process for filling jobs, more than 600 positions remain vacant at any given time. Overtime spending grew from $5.2 million in 2010 to $7.1 million last year.