Bell Chips In
Tue October 17, 2006 8:31 am

Chris Bell put John O’Quinn’s $1 million contribution to good use with a hard-hitting TV spot (“Sacrifice”) about the mismanagement of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) by Accenture, the company that won the contract, worth approximately $1 billion, to administer eligibility and enrollment for state health and welfare services. Here is the text:

“[voice over] Rick Perry gives the children’s health insurance contract to Accenture, a Bermuda based company represented by his former staffers, and a quarter million people lose their health insurance. Our children’s health sacrificed for Perry’s corruption. Democrat Chris Bell will fire Accenture and protect our children’s health insurance. [Bell speaking] ‘When I’m governor, we’re going to clean up the corruption and our children will have health insurance.’”

Visually, the spot opens with a large black and white photo of Perry against a dark background. In that background, indeterminate shapes are in motion. The words spoken by the voice appear on the screen in white letters, and they materialize out of the background: “Gives the children’s health insurance contract to Accenture…a Bermuda company…represented by his former staffers…a quarter million children…lose their health insurance…our children’s health…sacrificed for Perry’s corruption.” Those tiny pauses followed by new words emerging out of the gloom were very effective. I viewed the spot on the campaign Web site, so the background may be better defined on television. Later, there are images of Bell working at his desk, mingling with children with a giant Texas flag in the background, and, when he begins speaking, standing before an audience, which breaks into applause at the end of the spot. Once Bell himself comes into the picture, the words “Democrat Chris Bell for Governor” appear three times. Bell has a long way to go to fire up the Democratic base, but this is as good a start as he could hope for. Now the question is whether he will continue to get money.

Question of the day: How do you think the trial lawyers who have backed Strayhorn’s campaign feel today? All that money wasted and John O’Quinn, who is not beloved by his peers, in the spotlight. The strategic plan of the Strayhorn campaign–to be the only contender with the money to go toe-to-toe with Perry on television–has failed.

So, what was the deal with the Accenture contract? It was the result of an effort to control medical costs during the tumultuous 2003 legislative session, when lawmakers faced a $9.9 billion budget shortfall. The idea was to outsource the application process for applying for all state welfare services–CHIP, Medicaid, food stamps, aid to needy families–to call centers. The argument was that, by using one-stop shopping, the private sector could be more efficient, that each worker could process at least three times as many applications day as state workers. The proposal was the brainchild of State Representative Arlene Wohlgemuth, who I regarded as the most principled conservative in the Legislature. Wohlgemuth and I had a conversation at the time in which she said that she believed state workers were–I’m paraphrasing here–bending, or perhaps I should say generously interpreting, the rules to help applicants, and that this resulted in double-dipping, with CHIP and Medicaid, for instance. Wohlgemuth later ran for Congress against Democrat Chet Edwards and was defeated, in large part due to Edwards’ charge that she was callous about children’s health.

I thought that outsourcing the contract was worth a try. Everybody knows that the state has to do something to stop medical costs from skyrocketing. I had a cordial e-mail exchange with a researcher for the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation who had written an article on the TPPF Web site praising the new approach. I wrote that I agreed with her that government workers had no entitlement to a job, and that if the state could save a lot of labor costs on personnel costs by outsourcing the contract, it should do so. But if the unspoken purpose of the call centers was to pare the rolls by making it more difficult to qualify, this was unconscionable. My correspondent wrote back that she agreed.

The thing I was worried about, to be blunt, was that the word would go out from the governor’s office to the Health and Human Services agency that the number one priority was to keep the rolls to a minimum. I know, shame on me for being so cynical and doubting the good faith of the people involved, but that’s what I feared would happen. And, for whatever reason, that was the result.

The bidding for the contract was a mess. Affiliated Computer Services, which had been managing the CHIP enrollment process, and by all accounts was a model of efficiency and propriety, was partnered with IBM. Accenture was the other bidder, joined by a company called Maximus. The Department of Health and Human Services made a preliminary decision to award the contract to Accenture. The preliminary decision came three days AFTER Albert Hawkins, executive director of HHS, requested an internal investigation about the evaluation process. Two Democratic legislators, Sylvester Turner and Dawnna Dukes, formally asked Hawkins to investigate whether an Accenture employee had access to proprietary information about IBM. Subsequently, Representative Kevin Bailey, the chairman of the House General Investigating and Ethics Committee, began looking into the issue. He was quoted as saying, “[T]here have been allegations that [Accenture] may have some friends in high places, and there’s been some questions about whether they are competent to handle this kind of contract.” IBM filed an official protest, but Accenture won the contract despite the various allegations. (More gory details are available at http://www.cleanuptexaspolitics.com/node/view/479).

The two Perry staffers mentioned in the Bell ad are both former deputy chiefs of staff–Chris Britton, who helped Wohlgemuth write the legislation for the call centers and later went to work for Accenture, and Ray Sullivan, who was Accenture’s communications consultant for the contract bid. Although there seems to have been a lot of funny business going on, neither of their names have been associated with any of the gory details mentioned above. So, are we to believe that Britton’s and Sullivan’s influence peddling carried the day over poor, influence-less, IBM/ACS? Well, not exactly. IBM’s bid was led by lobbyist Mike Toomey, Perry’s former chief of staff and close close close close personal and political friend. And Toomey’s lobby partner, Bill Messer, has represented IBM for years. If political influence carried the day, then IBM should have won. If competence carried the day, then IBM should have won. My guess is that Accenture won the old-fashioned way. It was the low bidder. And Texas got what it paid for.

Bell’s ad, therefore, is innuendo. The former staffers have not been linked to corruption. And Perry’s ads in 2002 that linked Tony Sanchez to drug dealing and worse were innuendo as well. This is politics. The CHIP program is a mess and the governor is accountable for it.

The Perry campaign’s response on its Web site was pretty lame. Headlined, “Bell lauches attack ad, advocate Hillary Care for Texas,” it reads: “Chris Bell launched his first attack ad of his trial lawyer-sponsored campaign. The ad, brought to you by John O’Quinn’s millions, is designed to distract from the tremendous gains Texas has made in health care and the fact that Chris Bell is advocating government takeover of the entire Texas heath care system.” Robert Black is not going to make anybody forget Karen Hughes.

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