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The ins and outs of contracting services

By Staff | Jul 15, 2011

Two weeks ago in this space we talked about a meeting Sen. Herb Snyder and I had with Mike Lewis, the secretary of the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources.

In that meeting we tried to bring some sense to regulating food service at fairs and festivals. But that was not the only subject of that meeting.

Sen. Snyder and I had met a few days before with some employees and members of the Board of Directors of the Shepherdstown Day Care Center. They were quite concerned with some new rules they thought DHHR had imposed on them. These new rules seemed to me overly bureaucratic and some seemed truly stupid.

But DHHR had not made these new rules. They were the result of a “reinterpretation” of existing rules by a private contractor called Mountainheart.

Mountainheart has the contract to provide day care services for children of low income families. It was in fact Mountainheart, based in Elkins, who essentially made new rules to suit itself.

DHHR was unaware of the reinterpretation. Secretary Lewis promised to look into the matter. When I met with him a week later he told me that he thought the situation was being brought under control. Folks from the Shepherdstown Day Care Center told me a few days subsequent to my second meeting with Secreatary Lewis that Mountainheart had agreed to “consider” changes. I’ll not let this one out of my sight.

Often private contractors for state services try to leave the impression that they are really state agencies. “L’etat c’est moi,” (“I am the state,”) King Louis XIV of France is reputed to have said before Parliament in 1651. Some of these contractors seem to think they rank with good old Louis (the “Sun King”). The Shepherdstown Day Care Center board members and employees Sen. Snyder and I talked with thought that Mountainheart was indeed a state agency.

Some of the names seem designed to invoke this image. Have you ever heard of “the Board of Child Care?” Does that name not make it sound like it’s an arm of the state? It’s not. It’s a private contracting firm based in Baltimore that handles some of our juvenile services.

Defenders of “contracting out” government services like to argue that they save money. How so? Well, they are less bureaucratic than the government, so the argument goes, because the profit motive makes them more efficient.

Of course, they can be more efficient if we let them rewrite the rules so that many of the people eligible for their services end up not getting them. That’s what was happening at the Shepherdstown Day Care Center, thanks to Mountainheart. Numerous children were being cheated out of day care for which they were eligible.

Furthermore, we have no idea how private contractors treat their employees. The state has no rules guaranteeing safe and healthy working conditions for employees of private contractors.

A few years ago one individual worked out contracts with at least a half dozen small Southern West Virginia counties to provide their senior services. For several years in a row he pocketed over a million dollars a year while providing services worth not much more than that. We could have saved a ton of money if government had provided those sevices directly.

Certainly there are situations where contracting out makes sense. Sometimes we need particular expertise that no state employee has, because it would not be cost effective to keep such a person on board full time.

But some of the services now provided by private contractors could be provided just as easily and just as effectively by state employees. And we’d know a lot more about what they were doing.