The federal government has agreed to give Washington more time to spend money from a long-standing health care grant to help target Medicaid services to residents who become newly eligible under national health reforms in 2014.
The extra breathing room also gives Gov. Chris Gregoire’s staff a chance to steer around a tricky public-relations problem.
With an Aug. 31 grant deadline now gone, Gregoire’s health-policy team has time to put a $400,000 information and outreach project out to a competitive bid. A formal request for proposals from contractors is in the works, according to Jonathan Seib, top health-policy adviser to the Democratic governor.
Until the state got its extension from the federal Department of Health and Human Services, Seib and colleagues were racing the clock to avoid losing $250,000 in federal money they hoped to match with $150,000 from a foundation.
“We had to use it or lose it,” Seib said in a recent interview in which he explained the steps that led up to the contract offer and the logic that led to picking GMMB, a national consulting firm that has a strong reputation for its health care work.
But there was a problem. GMMB is in a Democrat-linked consulting firm whose principal, Frank Greer, advised Gregoire’s 2004 campaign for governor. State Republican Party chairman Kirby Wilbur pounced on it as a sign of “cronyism.”
Seib said the decision had nothing to do with GMMB’s political arm. In fact, Seib said that in his first talks with GMMB’s people, they mentioned the firm’s work in 2004 for Gregoire – just to be sure it would not be a problem, or a disqualification. His team decided it would not.
“In my mind, being the policy person, that wasn’t an issue. It was long enough ago and the reasons for going with them were compelling” because of the health care credentials, Seib said.
He said he needed a consultant familiar with ongoing health-reform efforts in other states, which GMMB had. He also wanted to avoid duplication and knew that the firm was recently hired under a separate competitive contract to advise the new Washington Health Benefit Exchange on health-reform issues.
Plus, Seib said, if there were red flags, he thought a contract-review process would bring them to light – which it did.
First, Jason Mercier of the Washington Policy Center drew attention to the sole-source contract, which was being offered on the eve of the Supreme Court’s ruling on health reform.
Before long Wilbur teed off – pointing out that Greer not only had done work for Gregoire, but was also arranging television ads for a political PAC that is expected to attack Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna in the coming months.
On Friday, Wilbur said in an interview he thinks the state still erred by not paying enough attention to the perception problem its selection of GMMB caused.
But at the same time, Wilbur said he understands the state’s rationale for doing what it did. Seib says he tried several times to get the federal government to extend its grant deadline and could not get a response.
Then on July 26, after failing to get approval for previous requests, federal HHS officials in the Health Resources and Services Administration suddenly granted a four-month extension for spending money in its State Health Access Program grant to Washington.
Seib says his bid request should be public soon and the work will help the next governor get ready to launch a public outreach effort for the potentially 500,000 more state residents that become eligible for Medicaid in January 2014.
The idea is to leave a low-cost “road map” for the next governor, while making sure the state’s planning effort keeps moving forward well in advance, Seib said.
“Its primary focus will be outreach and education to the newly eligible Medicaid enrollees as to what this means to them and how they are supposed to take advantage of it,” Seib explained. “We’re looking for fairly concrete messages to families in this state that say, ‘This is how you use this’” new access to Medicaid.
It is not clear whether GMMB will be among the firms that bid for the work.
But Alison Betty, a partner with GMMB in Washington, D.C., said in an emailed statement to a reporter that the firm supports what the state is doing.
“We believe an open-bid process is always the best option when any state initiates a partnership with a contractor. We understand that the state was operating within a very tight timeframe,” Betty wrote. “Our in-depth experience helping states implement health care reform as well as our existing work with the State’s Health Benefit Exchange made us uniquely qualified to take on the project. Now that the state’s deadline has been moved, we look forward to an open-bid process which is now possible.”
Betty also described GMMB’s health care policy team as non-partisan and said it “is working with more than a dozen states to help them communicate about what health reform means for their residents.”email@example.com