Florida’s ongoing struggle to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus through contact tracing is getting far more costly to taxpayers.
We’ve learned in less than three months, Florida’s $6 million contract with Virginia-based government contractor, Maximus Inc., has ballooned to $50 million and could reach up to $75 million according to a Maximus spokesperson.
In an email, Maximus spokesperson Lisa Miles said “as you know, the primary goal is to slow and control the spread of COVID. The contact tracing contracts are all contemplated to be temporary in nature. It is very typical for contracts to have modifications such as an extension to take services beyond the initial contract period or changes in staffing needs to adjust for volumes. Typically for volume-driven contracts like this, there tends to be a range of possible financial scenarios that depend on the level of activities. In this case, the total value will likely range between $65 million and $75 million,” stated Miles.
But the increase in costs over such a short period of time is cause for alarm to Daniel Bass of Communications Workers of America, the nation’s largest communications and media labor union.
"This contract really seems to be shrouded in secrecy," Bass said. His union has represented Maximus workers who, in recent years, have accused the call center provider of underbidding contracts, understaffing jobs, and underperforming projects. Last month, we've reported on the company's troubled history.
“Maximus can try and take advantage of situations to extract extra dollars from states for these important state contracts when the circumstances are right and this is exactly that kind of circumstance,” said Bass.
According to the state's contract database by the end of May, Florida's Department of Health agreed to pay Maximus Inc $6 million over four months for contact tracing services "to prevent the spread of COVID-19," according to the database which does not include a copy of the actual contract or any details about the scope of work it will be providing to the state's department of health.
By mid-July, the agreement extended to a year while it’s dollar amount more than quadrupled to $27 million.
Now, the arrangement is worth nearly $50 million, according to the state database. But in an August earnings report, Maximus Inc touted a 6-month contact tracing job with Florida’s Health Department including two separate scopes of work totaling $73 million.
Despite numerous requests, Florida’s Department of Health has yet to provide us with a copy of the contract, any scope of work details, or answer any questions about the rising costs of this agreement.
It’s a contract raising more eyebrows because of how much criticism the state has already received for its contact tracing efforts.
Miami Beach MayorDan Gelber has become an outspoken critic of how the Florida Department of Health is handling the ongoing pandemic including its contact tracing program.
“I’ve called it a failure, I’ve called it abysmal, I’ve called it ineffective, I’ve called it equivalent to not having a program,” he told Reporter Katie LaGrone during a zoom interview.
Gelber said he didn’t know Florida hired an outside firm to help or that it's paying them nearly $100 million to do it.
When asked if he thinks taxpayers are getting their money's worth, Gelber responded “I don’t know if we’re getting what we’re paying for because they’re [FL Dept. of Health] not keeping track of what kind of job they’re doing,” Gelber said.
Florida’s Department of Health now has 4400 tracers doing the job across the state, according to department spokesperson Alberto Moscoso. However, it remains unclear how many tracers are Maximus workers versus department of health employees. It’s also unclear how successful the state’s contact tracing program has been since Maximus came on board or how successful Maximus’ performance is. The state has not provided any details on how it measures performance.
“No, this is not how it’s supposed to work. In fact, it flies in the face of Florida’s strong transparency laws,” said Pamela Marsh, Executive Director of Florida’s First Amendment Foundation which fights to protect open records laws in Florida.
“They [FL Dept of Health] has to prove performance measures so that we can have some accountability for what we are getting for our money and, at this point, it’s just all in the dark,” Marsh said.
Maximus Inc. also would not share any details about its performance for Florida but it’s spokesperson, Lisa Miles stated “as it pertains to performance-based metrics within contracts, it would be highly unusual for one of our state clients to disclose performance data outside of a normal cadence. We typically see our government clients report on performance data that encompasses the entire program and in this case, Maximus is one part of the solution for Florida’s comprehensive contact tracing efforts,” Miles said.