The head of the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services says the agency has largely cleared a backlog of incomplete contracts that jeopardized people’s access to care.
Even so, some groups say the state still owes them tens of thousands of dollars for services they have provided.
Director Charlie Brereton told state lawmakers at a Jan. 18 meeting of the Children, Families, Health and Human Services Interim Committee that the agency is close to finalizing overdue contracts with organizations that provide public health services. .
“We’ve been working around the clock all fall and winter to resolve this issue and hope this never happens again,” Brereton said.
Brayton’s comments to lawmakers come after several state health contractors, including county health departments and behavioral health providers, told KFF Health News and other news organizations they have been waiting for months for the department to approve or renew their contracts. contract. As a result, the state did not cut inspections of the services provided and workers were not paid; some health organizations laid off employees and stopped services.
The state health department works with more than 4,000 private and public contractors in Montana. More than 700 of those contracts will be reviewed between June and December. Some suppliers said more than 200 contractors were affected at one point, but some state officials would not confirm.
Brereton told lawmakers there may still be some pending contracts “for a variety of reasons,” but any remaining contracts are a high priority.
Health department spokesman Jon Ebelt did not specify how many contracts remained as of Jan. 23, but said those remaining were “long-standing and complex.”
For those still waiting for payment, the final documents won’t immediately resolve the issue.
The Missoula City-County Health Department is one of the organizations dipping into local government reserves to keep programs running while they wait for state approval of two contracts. Damian Chase-Begay, the department’s health officer, said that as of Jan. 19, the state still owed the department about $69,000 for work completed in October and November. These payments cover the department’s Special Supplemental Nutrition Program services for Women, Infants, and Children.
Meanwhile, the county health department is still awaiting a final contract worth $293,000 for a program that will provide families with the services of public health nurses, social workers and other community health professionals.
Ebelt did not answer questions about how much the government owes organizations in back wages.
“Agency leadership has directed all programs to upgrade outstanding invoices to ensure expedited payment,” Ebelt said. “However, some contractors have not yet charged for services in accordance with the terms of the contract. Invoices will be paid upon receipt.”
Don Roberts, who runs a drop-in center for addicts on the Flathead Indian Reservation in Ronan, said on Jan. 19 that he, too Awaiting a final contract from the state and payment for months of work. Roberts said he learned from state health officials that his case was about to be resolved and submitted his October invoice.
“When I see eggs in the basket, I count them,” Roberts said.
His company, Never Alone Recovery Support Services, has not had a contract covering wages at the center for more than three months. Roberts said he and other employees began working part-time this month, leaving unpredictable hours for the site, which serves as a resource for people in the crisis.
Roberts said health officials contacted him after he spoke with KFF Health News about the delays.
“What I can say for sure is that all of a sudden the conversation started again,” he said. “Before, there was nothing, we were just in the dark.”
Brereton told lawmakers the department did not send a mass letter to thousands of contractors to avoid causing “widespread panic” among unaffected organizations.
Health department Chief Financial Officer Kim Aiken said the agency began to recognize the severity of the backlog in the fall.
She said the delays were caused by a number of factors. The Ministry of State Administration emphasized rigorous legal review of contracts and increased focus on compliance. A new rule requires Montana to confirm that contractors do not discriminate against companies that manufacture or sell firearms. The state also needs to manage more contracts than usual, which Aiken said is partly related to projects to reform and improve Montana’s behavioral health and developmental disabilities systems.
Aiken said another issue is turnover within the health department and administration, which helps manage state contracts.
Among other things, she said the department will create an agency-wide contract monitoring system and health officials will work with the Department of Administration to standardize contract templates. She also said the health department is considering providing more training and tools to avoid staff turnover.
“We’re looking at the problem from every angle,” Aiken said.
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