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UMMS wants us to believe it has changed its ways. Can we?

UMMS wants us to believe it has changed its ways. Can we?
The University of Maryland Medical System this week released a consultant's investigation into its contracting practices with UMMS board members. (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun)

The message the University of Maryland Medical System has been trying to send in recent days is summed up in big type at the start of a news release Wednesday announcing the completion of a consultant’s report on the self-dealing scandal that has rocked the institution this year: “System embraces opportunities for both process and culture change outlined in third-party report.” Translation: “We screwed up. We get it. We’ve changed.”

Have they?

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There is certainly some evidence of it. Robert Chrencik, the system’s former CEO who personally approved UMMS’ shady deal to pay former Mayor Catherine Pugh $500,000 for copies of her self-published children’s book without any evident concern that they were actually printed, much less achieving the stated purpose of improving children’s health, has been “separated from the organization.” (At last accounting, the terms of his separation were “still being determined.”)

Other heads have rolled. Four other top executives resigned last week, including one who signed a letter to the city school system related to the first batch of “Healthy Holly” books and another who reportedly worked in concert with board member Robert Pevenstein to pressure UMMS staff to use software in which Mr. Pevenstein had a financial interest. (The system did not disclose details about any severance the four executives will be paid.)

The system adopted a new conflict of interest policy that bars sole-source contracts with board members, requires disclosure of such arrangements to the full board and prohibits altogether “personal services” contracts with board members, among other reforms. Gov. Larry Hogan appointed 11 new board members this week, and on Wednesday, the board named two existing members who had not been implicated in the scandal as chair and vice-chair — James C. “Chip” DiPaula Jr. and Alexander Williams. Mr. DiPaula, who was budget secretary and chief of staff to former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., and Mr. Williams, a former federal judge, are both well known and respected in Maryland political circles, and justifiably so. The same is true of the system’s new chief of staff, Kristen Jones Bryce.

And, to top it off, the system dropped a request for a big rate increase at its flagship hospital that was questionable from a policy point of view and downright boneheaded in terms of public relations.

Nonetheless, we’re not ready to declare mission accomplished. Although UMMS refers to the report as a “third-party” evaluation of the system’s contracting practices with board members, it is not an arms-length investigation. The consultants who performed it were hired by UMMS, and the scope of their work was determined by UMMS. We will have much more confidence that we have gotten to the bottom of the issue when the Department of Legislative Services completes a forensic audit mandated by the General Assembly.

We’re also concerned that, amid this week’s developments, the UMMS board decided to reinstate four members who had gone on leave because of contracts they or their companies had with the system. In all four cases, the contracts were at least at one point competitively bid and involved services the system actually needed. Nonetheless, their restoration to the board sends a mixed message. UMMS reform legislation passed this year will force them and all other incumbent board members to resign; for the sake of a clean break, we urge Governor Hogan not to reappoint them. And the case of one of them, former state Sen. Francis X. Kelly, touches on another governance flaw. State law has long limited board members to no more than two terms of five years, but in his case and others, that has been ignored. Excessive coziness between the board and those it is supposed to be governing is at the heart of the UMMS scandal, and indefinite terms for board members are part of that problem.

UMMS leadership has come a long way from its initial resistance to any calls for reform and its claims that limits on board member financial relationships with the institution will keep qualified people from volunteering to serve. But the kind of culture change that’s needed won’t come quickly or easily — perhaps particularly so given that the “new” people running UMMS were all there when these insider deals were struck or continued. The only thing that can restore public confidence in the institution is sustained scrutiny and transparency. Governor Hogan and the legislature need to make sure we get it.

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