Maryland health exchange sometimes avoided bidding process

At least four contractors won non-competitive bids on the Maryland health exchange.

Among dozens of contracts the Maryland health exchange board approved to build and run an online marketplace for the uninsured, 22 were for key project management services. And on four occasions, the board decided not to competitively bid that work.

These sole-source contracts were worth up to $1.3 million, and exchange officials said the companies had "significant relevant experience" and a "unique appreciation" for the jobs, largely because employees had already done some exchange or state work, according to documents obtained under the Public Information Act by The Baltimore Sun.

But critics say the awards are part of a flawed procurement process at the exchange, which was set apart from normal state contracting approvals to speed the process.

That has drawn criticism from watchdog groups as well as Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot, who serves on the board that approves major state contracts.

State and federal investigations continue into the rollout of the exchange website, which suffered technical problems, crashed on the first day and had to be replaced. The project management contractors, who mostly worked on the initial website, have not been accused of wrongdoing.

Exchange officials and former Gov. Martin O'Malley have said they would pursue the prime contractor in court to recoup some of the state's money, but have not done so. The exchange declined to comment further about the project management contracts.

"Whenever you see an alternative process being developed, it's a recipe for less transparency," said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, spokeswoman for Common Cause Maryland. "These procurements are where so much of the trouble started."

The exchange has not released details of how dozens of contracts were awarded since 2011 — or whether they were put out for competitive bids. Those contracts include work such as website hosting, information technology services, operating a call center and marketing.

Michael Asner, a government contracting consultant, said there are best practices when it comes to sole-source contracts, often done to get key personnel in place quickly. But he said the term "uniquely qualified" generally "offends the principles of fair, open and transparent public procurement."

meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

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