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Vote on Md. health exchange call center delayed

Md. health exchange working toward more transparency.

The board that makes spending decisions for Maryland's health exchange delayed a vote on a contract for its call center Tuesday as it works toward more transparency in the procurement process.

The board was set to vote on a modification to the contract first awarded to Maximus Health in 2014. Because more people called for help than expected, the contract, initially set to expire in 2017, has undergone five modifications already.

But after lengthy discussion and many questions from board members, Chairman Van Mitchell said the vote would be delayed.

"I know it is not the best thing for you to hear," Mitchell told a Maximus executive. "But it has been a frank discussion. We appreciate your patience. We know it's not the best way to run a business."

The health exchange, through which Maryland consumers can buy insurance under Obamacare, has a separate procurement process from agencies that appear before the state's Board of Public Works. The health exchange board has been criticized for awarding no-bid, emergency and sole-source contracts.

Mitchell, who was appointed state health secretary by Gov. Larry Hogan earlier this year, said Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot wants the exchange to voluntarily submit its contracts to the Board of Public Works. It is not something the board is actively considering and something they would have to vote on, Mitchell said.

But they are taking more precautions, asking more detailed questions and discussing more detail about the contracts in open meetings rather than in closed session.

Mitchell said the board needs more time to review the contract because all of its members are new. He said they have to be more careful about awarding money because the budget is smaller as federal funding declines each year under the Affordable Care Act.

The budget for fiscal year 2016 is $77 million, with $42 million in federal funding. The budget for fiscal 2015 was $157 million, with $128.5 million in federal funding.

As Maximus prepares to field an estimated 1.6 million calls in fiscal 2016, the company has said it needs more than the 125 employees designated under the original contract to keep up with demand during open enrollment.

Officials presented the board with four contract options ranging from $15 million to $33 million.

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