A set of emergency contracts signed by the Hogan administration to help the state with its COVID-19 vaccine rollout will get their first official review Wednesday, providing a window into the millions in public spending done quickly and in private to combat the pandemic.
The Maryland Board of Public Works is expected to consider the contracts, one with New York-based consulting firm Ernst & Young and the other with Bethesda-based Digital Management. Together, they could reach a combined value of $46 million.
Ernst & Young has been helping the state with work described as supply chain management, forensic accounting and staffing for vaccine allocation, while Digital Management has been running Maryland’s call center for its mass vaccination clinics.
The state also has entered into an emergency contract with Hagerty Consulting for additional staffing support, though that contract will not be reviewed Wednesday. The state has not disclosed how much that contract was worth.
Taxpayer groups and lawmakers often criticize the use of such emergency contracts, which do not go through the normal process of soliciting and analyzing bids from multiple vendors, out of concern they can lead to higher costs and lower value.
The contracts already have sparked criticism from some lawmakers, who questioned the true value of the consultants’ work.
“These are activities that [the state health department] should be doing on their own as part of their responsibility for overseeing and managing the [vaccine] program,” said State Sen. Clarence Lam, a member of the Senate Vaccine Oversight Workgroup, which has been meeting weekly with the state’s acting health secretary, Dennis R. Schrader.
“Why they couldn’t have prepared for this, including a review of initial improvements, without having to turn to outside consultants since the start of the pandemic is beyond me.”
Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, who sits on the three-member public works board, has joined Schrader in defending the contracts, saying they have helped officials unravel some of the mysteries of the federal allocation and connected Marylanders with vaccine appointments.
The review comes days after the Maryland Senate unanimously approved legislation that would require the governor to tell the General Assembly about any emergency contracts signed within 72 hours. The House of Delegates has yet to vote on the bill.
There are no reporting requirements now for the governor or other administration officials to lawmakers during a state of emergency, though the contracts do have to be reported to the state Board of Public Works for review within 45 days.
State Del. Brooke Lierman, the bill’s sponsor in the House, said the aim is not to stop the governor from making quick decisions during an emergency, though working through proper channels is preferred to ensure taxpayers get the best prices and services.
Such contracts nonetheless may be necessary on a limited basis, the Baltimore Democrat said, particularly when it’s not clear in advance what services and supplies are needed.
“It’s about transparency,” Lierman said. “How are our state dollars being spent and what actions are being taken through the procurement process? After the fact, we’ve been able to put together some examples through budget amendments and [Public Information Act requests.] That’s totally insufficient.”
A fiscal review done by the Office of Legislative Audits found there have been more than 200 emergency procurement contracts authorized by state agencies during the COVID-19 pandemic to date.
A one-page summary of Ernst & Young’s work, obtained by The Baltimore Sun, shows the addition of seven support staffers to assist Maryland with planning, data analyses, logistics and “coordinating with various stakeholders and entities to further enhance, develop and implement the vaccination plan.”
The consulting firm also has conducted an assessment of the state’s system, “guided by our experience in other states and our seasoned subject matter resources.”
The document did not detail the findings of the assessment. Ernst & Young declined to comment.
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“We need to have assurance that the Department is spending millions in emergency procurements wisely and know that recommendations that have been sought by a consultant have been enacted,” Lam said.
The state health department considered another bid for the work being done by Ernst & Young. Alvarez and Marsal LLC, a Washington, D.C., firm, sought $19 million for the work, according to the Board of Public Works’ agenda.
The department also considered another vendor for the contract that went to Digital Management, the call center operator. Reston, Virginia-based Maximus US Service sought more than $40 million for the job, the agenda shows.
Digital Management has received more than 306,000 calls since the call center’s launch, according to the board agenda. As of Feb. 28, the call center employees had booked 26,714 appointments. They can scale up to accommodate upward of 75,000 calls per day, according to the agenda.
Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot, a Democrat who also sits on the board, called on state lawmakers this month to appoint an independent commission to conduct an audit of all state and federal dollars that have been spent on relief for the coronavirus pandemic.
“I believe we urgently need this independent commission to monitor and investigate the use of such large sums of taxpayer dollars to ensure that the public treasury is protected in the future and accounted for in the past,” Franchot, the state’s top financial officer, said in a letter.
Maryland Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, a Democrat, also sits on the board.