Archive for October, 2013

UnitedHealth Group Haunts Obamacare

Thursday, October 31st, 2013

unitedhealth_100121_mnKathleen Sebelius’s “hold me accountable” line at the latest House hearing on the botched rollout of Healthcare.gov was a deft political move. It flummoxed Republican interrogators who expected the HHS Secretary to pass the buck.

Yet the line was dismaying in that it continued the Obama Administration’s practice of deflecting most criticism away from the contractors that were responsible for building the portal, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Not only have the contractors been shielded, but one of those at the center of the debacle was just chosen to head up the rescue of the project. In the world of government outsourcing, failure is no impediment to getting rehired with even more responsibility.

The anointed company is QSSI, previously an obscure player in the world of healthcare IT. What makes the kid-glove treatment of this firm all the more galling is that QSSI is owned by UnitedHealth Group, also the parent of UnitedHealthcare, one of the two behemoths (the other is WellPoint) of the private health insurance industry.

In other words, one of the large corporations that the Affordable Care Act is propping up (despite their abysmal record) is now profiting from cleaning up the mess that one of its unit caused in trying to create a system designed to help people enroll in plans sold by its own parent company and its competitors.

If this were not bizarre enough, it is worth recalling that this is not the first time a UnitedHealth subsidiary has been involved in a scandal involving a healthcare database. In 2008 the company’s Ingenix unit was the target of allegations that its tool for determining how much patients should be reimbursed for out-of-network medical expenses was seriously flawed. Then-New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo brought suit against UnitedHealth, calling the widely used Ingenix database part of a scheme to “to deceive and defraud consumers.”

In 2009 UnitedHealth settled with Cuomo by agreeing to spend $50 million to build a new database and then agreed to pay $350 million to settle class action lawsuits that had brought over the issue. Ingenix subsequently changed its name to Optuminsight, which by the way is now the parent of QSSI.

Another UnitedHealth subsidiary, Lewin Group, has generated controversy of another sort: presenting itself as an impartial healthcare consulting company when it is part of a corporation with a big vested interest in the policy options Lewin evaluates. During the Congressional deliberations over healthcare reform in 2009 Lewin produced analyses concluding that the adoption of a public option would result in a mass exodus from private plans and jeopardize their future. A Lewin executive made the alarmist statement that the private insurance industry “might just fizzle out altogether” and helped to sway lawmakers to omit the option from the Affordable Care Act. Like QSSI, the Lewin Group is a unit of Optuminsight.

UnitedHealth is also tied to what is emerging as the new focus of anti-Obamacare rage: reports that insurance companies are cancelling large numbers of policies. This is being portrayed as a betrayal of Obama’s earlier promise that people with coverage would be able to keep it. Yet what is really going on is that insurers are complying with provisions of the ACA that bar them from continuing to sell substandard policies.

Those policies—with huge deductibles and big holes in coverage—were sold not only by fly-by-night companies. Aetna, for example, was pushing these bare-bones plans as early as 1999. UnitedHealth Group made a big push into this market in 2003 when it acquired Golden Rule Financial, which specialized in low-cost individual plans, for $500 million. The spread of such policies was one of the main justifications for healthcare reform.

The repeated appearances of UnitedHealth subsidiaries amid the tribulations of the ACA are reminders that the Obama Administration made a Faustian bargain with the private sector in designing healthcare reform. The question now is whether it can reclaim its soul.

Note: This piece draws from my new Corporate Rap Sheet on UnitedHealth Group, which can be found here.

The Outsourcing Customer is Always Wrong

Thursday, October 24th, 2013
Image from OptumInsight website

Image from OptumInsight website

The corporate executives who testified at a House hearing on the botched rollout of the federal healthcare portal apparently sprayed themselves with Teflon before heading to Capitol Hill. Blame for the fiasco did not stick to these contractors as Republican members of the Energy & Commerce Committee sought to implicate the Obama Administration and the Democrats focused on defending the Affordable Care Act.

Representatives from four contractors — CGI Federal, QSSI, Serco and Equifax — took advantage of the situation by denying any serious shortcomings on their part. In fact, they each claimed that their individual pieces of Healthcare.gov were working fine and claimed to be puzzled as to why the overall system was not working properly. When pressed, they implied that the federal agency that had commissioned their work — the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services — had not given them adequate time for testing. In other words, they acted as if they were innocent bystanders at someone else’s train wreck.

Yet these were companies that received the lion’s share of the lucrative contracts awarded by CMS for the creation of the federal portal. CGI and QSSI alone received a total of $143 million. They were not the people who delivered the Chinese food or emptied the wastebaskets while the real work was being done by others.

These contractors present themselves quite differently when touting their services. On its website, CGI brags: “With deep experience in developing and integrating business, clinical and IT solutions for public and private sector health organizations across Europe and North America, CGI helps clients anticipate challenges and achieve real transformation.” Speaking specifically about health insurance exchanges (HIX), the site says: “Because exchanges must provide many different functions, the soundest approaches bring together expertise and best practices in federal and state health programs, commercial insurance, data exchange, portals, e-commerce over the cloud, and financial management. CGI brings all of this expertise to the table, along with direct experience in developing sustainable HIX programs.”

Similar boasts are made by QSSI, which stands for Quality Software Services Inc.: “Bringing together the most talented personnel in the industry, QSSI collaborates with both the public sector and private sector to maximize performance and create sustainable value for our customers.” The website of QSSI’s parent OptumInsight declares: “We’re making the most of our leadership position in health and human services technology by helping to transform government agencies into efficient, cost-effective programs with decision support, informatics, and program analysis.”

There is a special irony in the presence of QSSI and OptumInsight at the center of this scandal. OptumInsight, which purchased QSSI last year, is a unit of UnitedHealth Group, whose UnitedHealthcare unit is one of the country’s largest health insurance providers.

In other words, one of the for-profit insurers that the Affordable Care Act went to such great lengths to preserve — despite their countless abuses — is closely linked to the mess surrounding the web portal that is supposed to help people in 36 states sign up for the coverage that it and its counterparts will provide.

Last year Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley and House Energy Chair Fred Upton, both Republicans, raised questions about potential conflicts of interest in the wake of UnitedHealth’s purchase of QSSI, but that issue seems to have been forgotten in the quest to blame the Obama Administration for all the ills of Healthcare.gov. Also largely overlooked is the fact that the Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services has criticized QSSI, whose employees have access to sensitive information on individuals, for not sufficiently implementing CMS security protocols with regard to thumb drives.

In his testimony before the House Energy committee, Andrew Slavitt of QSSI’s parent company, said: “We do understand the frustration many people have felt since Healthcare.gov was launched,” yet he in effect denied any responsibility for causing that frustration.

So it goes in the world of outsourcing: the customer is always wrong and the company, whatever its shortcomings, gets off scot free.

GE Dumps Workers as It Dredges the Hudson

Thursday, October 17th, 2013

DUMP_YRD_SIGNFor 30 years, General Electric resisted calls to remove the toxic substances it had dumped into New York’s Hudson River over several decades. Now that the process is well under way, the company is striking back at the state by shutting its cleaned-up plant along the river and moving some 200 jobs to Florida. The workers slated to be laid off feel that they are now being dumped.

The site of the dispute is Fort Edward (about 200 miles north of New York City), where from the late 1940s to the mid-1970s GE produced electric capacitors using insulating material containing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Vast quantities of PCB-contaminated waste ended up in the river’s waters and riverbed.

By the 1970s PCBs were recognized to be a human carcinogen and their manufacture was banned in the United States.  In 1975 the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation ordered GE to cease its PCB dumping and negotiated a path-breaking settlement under which the company would help pay the cost of cleaning up the pollution that had closed the river to commercial fishing and become a national symbol of corporate irresponsibility.

As the projected cost of the clean-up escalated, GE resisted dredging the river’s sediment, which was estimated to contain more than 130 metric tons of PCBs, and instead proposed dubious alternatives such as using bacteria to try to break down the toxic wastes. The company continued this obstruction for years, even after the EPA ordered it in 2001 to pay an estimated $460 million to remove 2.65 million cubic yards of sediment. The legal battle finally ended in 2005, but it took until 2009 for GE to actually begin the dredging. The process is now in its fifth year.

The workers at the Fort Edward plant may not be around to celebrate the completion of the clean-up. A few weeks ago, GE announced that it planned to close the plant and move the operation to Clearwater, Florida. The Fort Edward workers have been represented by the United Electrical (UE) union for the past 70 years, while the Clearwater plant—as you might expect—is non-union.

The Fort Edward move is just the latest of a long series of actions by GE that have weakened the economy of upstate New York. The city of Schenectady, where Thomas Edison moved his electrical equipment operation in 1886, has alone lost tens of thousands of jobs through waves of GE downsizing.

GE also seems to feel no sense of obligation in connection with the economic development subsidies it has received from state and local government agencies in New York. The biggest giveaways have come downstate. In 1987, a year after it was acquired by GE, NBC pressured New York City to give it $98 million in tax breaks under the threat of moving its operations to New Jersey.  In 1999 investment house Kidder Peabody, then owned by GE, got its own $31 million package to stay in the city.

There have also been subsidies upstate. For example, in 2009 GE got a $5 million grant and a $2 million tax abatement for its operations in Schenectady. The company’s research center in Niskayuna, New York has received millions of dollars in local tax breaks.

When GE has not received enough subsidies for its satisfaction, the company sometimes tries to reduce its local tax bills by challenging the assessed value of its property. In 2002, for example, it sued to get the value of its turbine plant in Rotterdam, New York reduced from $159 million to $41 million. A compromise ruling gave GE some of what it wanted and forced the town to reimburse the company about $6 million. Not satisfied, the company later brought a new challenge and got the town to negotiate a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes deal.

And, of course, GE is notorious for its dodging in other states and at the federal level, where it also gets subsidized through agencies such as the Export-Import Bank and got TARP-related assistance for its GE Capital unit.

Members of UE Local 332 are vowing to fight the plant shutdown, but they are up against a company that has shown it is  willing to go to great lengths to get its way on environmental, labor and tax issues.

The Beltway Bandit Behind the Healthcare.gov Debacle

Thursday, October 10th, 2013

Healthcare.gov website downA January 2011 article in Canada’s Globe and Mail was headlined “CGI Spies Opportunity in Obama’s Call for Efficiency.” A new story in the same newspaper about the same company has the title “Canadian IT Firm at Centre of Obamacare Foul-Up Furor.”

U.S. critics of the Affordable Care Act are depicting the widespread computer problems that have accompanied the launch of the ACA’s online healthcare exchanges as a major government failure. To be more precise, it is a failure of government contracting. And the contractor at the center of the mess is CGI Group, a Canadian outsourcing corporation that is little known outside information technology circles.

According to a Government Accountability Office report published in June, CGI’s U.S. subsidiary CGI Federal received the largest share (totaling $88 million) of the contracts awarded for the creation of the Healthcare.gov website, the ACA enrollment portal in the 36 states that declined to create their own exchanges. That report, by the way, warned of possible “implementation challenges.”

The glitches in the ACA rollout are shining an unfavorable light on the widespread practice by governments at all levels of contracting out information technology to the private sector. The Washington Post just published a front-page story reporting that the federal government, which spends some $80 billion a year on outside IT services, ends up purchasing “outdated, costly and buggy technology.” This may be an indication of cluelessness on the part of federal IT procurement officials, but it is also a sign that the private sector is all too willing to take taxpayer dollars for inferior products.

It is not yet clear whether CGI tried to use sub-standard technology for Healthcare.gov or whether it just failed to meet the challenges of creating a complex new system. The company and the feds are saying little about the reasons for the glitches, preferring to issue assurances that everything will soon be running smoothly.

The Post notes that “Federal officials have not yet explained why CGI was given the contract or why it was awarded on a sole-source basis.” They might also want to explain why the contract was given to a company linked to some earlier contracting scandals.

CGI has built its U.S. operation in large part by acquiring existing federal contractors. One of those was Stanley Inc., which it purchased in 2010 for about $900 million. Two years earlier, Stanley found itself under fire when it was reported that some of its employees working on a contract with the U.S. State Department had improperly looked at the passport records of several Presidential candidates, including Barack Obama.

Stanley was also involved in a controversy over its labor practices at the 400-worker processing center of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in St. Albans, Vermont. As it was about to assume control over the facility, which handles citizenship applications, Stanley announced that it would change job classifications at the facility, resulting in a pay decrease of about 12 percent for up to half the workers. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders called on the Labor Department to investigate what he charged was a violation of the Service Contract Act.

Stanley’s move also prompted a union organizing drive by the United Electrical workers. UE official Chris Townsend told me at the time that Stanley was employing a variety of union-busting tactics—from hiring the union-avoidance law firm Seyfarth Shaw to forcing workers to watch propaganda videos. Townsend said workers were held in captive-audience meetings for up to one-quarter of their shifts in the period leading up to the elections—this at a time when the backlog of citizenship applications was a serious problem. Despite these obstacles, UE managed to win representation elections covering most of the workers. In 2011 the U.S. Department of Labor announced that Stanley (by then owned by CGI) and several subcontractors would pay nearly $2.9 million in back wages for workers who had been misclassified.

CGI itself has also had its share of scandals, including a 2007 furor over a C$400 million contract it received from the Canadian government at a time when the Public Works Minister was Michael Fortier, who had been an investment banker for CGI during his time working for Credit Suisse. A 2010 report by the Hawaii State Auditor found that what was supposed to be a five-year contract awarded in 1999 by the state department of taxation to a company later purchased by CGI had been repeatedly extended through non-competitive awards, costing the state far more than originally planned.

The federal government long ago chose to depend on contractors for its vast information technology needs. That decision periodically results in debacles like those surrounding the rollout of the ACA exchanges. It remains to be seen whether fiascoes will also mar the actual insurance coverage being provided through the ACA, which also relies on the supposedly efficient private sector.

UPDATE: I subsequently learned that in September 2012 the Toronto Star reported that the government of Ontario had canceled a C$46 million contract awarded to CGI to create a diabetes registry after the company failed to meet deadlines.

Aiming at Government and Hitting Big Business

Thursday, October 3rd, 2013

corporate_flag2-1The tea party caucus calling the shots in the U.S. House of Representative is gloating about having shut down the federal government while simultaneously claiming that technical problems in the rollout of the Obamacare health exchanges are a sign of the failure of the public sector. On both fronts the truth is a lot more complicated.

What the critics of big government tend to overlook is that the public and private sectors are so intertwined that it is difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. The tea party crowd may have no concern about the hardships they are imposing on 800,000 furloughed federal workers, yet their shutdown is also threatening the well-being of the much larger number of contractor employees—once estimated at more than 7 million—who often work alongside those directly on the federal payrolls. USA Today quoted someone from the National Federal Contractors Association estimating that 250,000 to 300,000 workers could be affected.

It’s not only a labor issue. The employers of those contract workers are also being affected, some immediately and many more if the shutdown lasts more than a few days. The federal departments and agencies covered by the USASpending website together accounted for some $517 billion in contract spending in FY2012. The Defense Department, of course, was responsible for the bulk of that total ($361 billion), but other departments and agencies also make extensive use of contractors for goods and services; for example, Energy ($25 billion), HHS ($19 billion), Veterans Affairs ($17 billion), NASA ($15 billion) and Homeland Security ($12 billion). Another 15 each spent $1 billion or more.

Many large corporations eat heartily at this contracting trough. Businessweek reminds us that some depend on the feds for more than half of their revenue: Lockheed Martin (80 percent), Booz Allen Hamilton (71 percent) and Raytheon (59 percent), for instance. A Bloomberg story entitled “Businesses Often Opposed to Government Beg for Its Return,” quotes someone from the Aerospace Industries Alliance urging a resolution of the shutdown standoff: “You can’t run a business this way. The uncertainty is killing us.”

Despite the wrong-headed rhetoric on the Right about a government takeover of healthcare, the Affordable Care Act is also an example of the incestuous relationship between the public and private sectors. This begins, of course, with the fact that the ACA is creating millions of new customers for private insurance companies (while also extending Medicaid coverage to more lower-income families).

At the same time, a great deal of the administration of the ACA itself has been placed in the hands of contractors. The blame for the snafus in the new online healthcare exchanges rests with the companies hired to build the websites and the related call centers.

As I wrote about last year, the exchanges have been a goldmine for contractors such as Accenture, Xerox and Maximus.  Accenture got a $359 million contract just for the California exchange while Maximus got awards from states such as Minnesota and Connecticut as well as the District of Columbia.

The involvement of companies such as Maximus and Accenture do not bode well for the future of the exchanges. Both companies were involved in a major scandal involving the creation of a $900 million social services enrollment system in Texas, while Maximus has been at the center of contracting controversies in numerous states. In 2007 it had to pay $30.5 million to resolve Medicaid fraud charges related to its contract with the District of Columbia.

Another tainted company, Serco, got a contract worth up to $1.2 billion to help determine which users of the healthcare exchanges are eligible for federal subsidies. The firm’s parent Serco Group is being investigated by British authorities for irregularities relating to its contract to monitor offenders on parole and individuals released on bail. It was recently reported that the UK’s Serious Fraud Office is looking into allegations that some of the people Serco was charging the government for electronically tagging were either still in prison or dead.

What is commonly seen as a crisis of government is actually a pair of crises for the private sector — one in which the corporations feeding off the public sector face an interruption in their revenue stream and another in which some of those contractors failed to deliver, at least initially, on a high-profile project. The tea party contingent needs to face the fact that it is now impossible to take a swipe at Big Government without hitting Big Business.