Other Opinions

State’s contract review process is still not what it should be

Bill Crawford
Bill Crawford

Just when you thought it might finally be safe to swim in Mississippi’s contractual storm waters, the Mississippi Department of Education and Mississippi True contracts erupted.

As reported by The Clarion-Ledger, “both State Auditor Stacey Pickering and the state’s legislative watchdog ‘PEER’ committee blasted the Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) and vowed further investigation into its contracting and purchasing.”

PEER questioned MDE practices that seemed to intentionally evade state contract review oversight. As reported by Mississippi Today, PEER pointed to contracts issued to the same company from 2014 to 2016 “having apparent similarities in scope of work and for amounts that collectively exceeded bid thresholds, rather than competitively bidding contracts for such services.”

Pickering said the avoidance was intentional, “They have blatant disregard at the Department of Education for procurement regulations.”

Clarion-Ledger columnist Geoff Pender was especially skeptical of MDE behavior. “So far, the explanations from MDE have been of the ‘nuh-uh, ‘taint so, nothing to see here’ variety and, ‘whoever did that is no longer here and a dog ate the paperwork.’ Explanations from the board have been nonexistent — odd, given serious issues have been raised over spending of millions of taxpayers’ dollars under its watch.”

This comes virtually on the heels of the contract scandals at the Mississippi Department of Corrections that led to criminal charges and convictions.

Rep. Jerry Turner and Gov. Phil Bryant tightened up the contract review process, but not soon enough to prevent the Division of Medicaid from slipping a $2 billion contract through via a loophole.

Mississippi True is the legislatively authorized Provider Sponsored Health Plan created by Mississippi hospitals to compete with out-of-state companies for the state Medicaid managed care contract.

Medicaid leaders decided this $2 billion contract did not need to go before the contract review board. When Medicaid’s internal process gave the managed care contract to three out-of-state companies, Mississippi True protested. Gov. Bryant directed Medicaid to submit the contract and its review process to the review board.

Last month the review board finally considered the contract but took no action. Staff said Medicaid’s contracting process did not fully comply with guidelines, but recommended the board waive that noncompliance and approve the contract. The board was unable to get a seconded motion to either approve or disapprove the contract.

Changes intended to strengthen the review process, however, provided a loophole Medicaid will jump through. While the law says the review board is to “approve all personal and professional services contracts” in excess of $75,000, a new section was slipped in that says a contract “shall be presumed to be approved if the Personal Service Contract Review Board does not object to the contract within thirty (30) days.”

Since the review board took no action, Medicaid says this new provision lets it move ahead. Mississippi True is seeking court intervention.

This spring, Turner passed additional legislation to strengthen the review process. It repeals the 30-day loophole. But, unusually, the Legislature delayed implementation of Turner’s changes until January.

So, despite the prison contract scandal, we still have two government agencies dodging contract review, an indecisive contract review board, an ill-timed change to the law and ongoing contract eruptions.

With apologies to Tammy Bullock-Rutherford, that’s so Mississippi.

Bill Crawford is syndicated columnist from Meridian.