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Gov. Greg Abbott's top health appointee draws bipartisan fire at hearing

Charles Smith, executive commissioner of the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, testified August 15, 2016, before the House State Affairs Committee on contracting procedures. Photo courtesy of Bob Daemmrich for The Texas Tribune.

by Jay Root | The Texas Tribune

Both Republican and Democratic members of a key legislative oversight committee unloaded on Gov. Greg Abbott’s top health appointee and other administration officials Thursday, putting them on the hot seat for hours about alleged contracting abuses and failures at the sprawling Health and Human Services Commission.

The often tense hearing before the House General Investigating & Ethics Committee played out against a backdrop of mounting frustration in the Texas Legislature about scathing audits and embarrassing disclosures at an agency that was supposed to be getting its act together after contracting scandals roiled it two years ago.

An audit showing millions in misspent contract money. A report of botched transportation services for poor Texans. Failure to publicly disclose the details of how billions were spent. Then word on Thursday that the integrity of a “substantial procurement” was jeopardized because an employee’s spouse went to work for a subcontractor.

“I just can’t take any more of these articles,” fumed state Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake. “It’s something that seems to be coming up a lot.”

Making the best of an unfortunate headline, HHSC Commissioner Charles Smith, appointed by Abbott last year, cited the flap involving the employee’s spouse as a “testament to the process” put in place as a result of the recent scandals.

“It’s part of building and creating that culture. It isn’t going to change overnight,” Smith said. “But what people will begin to see is that we will react and build and address these issues and we will go through the appropriate process.”

State Rep. Sarah Davis, a Houston Republican and chair of the oversight committee, called the discussion about the latest controversy a “diversion” and expressed skepticism about how much the culture has changed at HHSC.

“Y’all have been working really, really hard to change the culture but I heard the same thing two years ago,” she said.

Smith also disclosed during the hearing that he had referred yet another contracting controversy to his agency's Inspector General's office — this one involving the medical transportation services for needy Texans. Since privatization of the program in 2009, the percentage of Medicaid clients receiving transportation services plummeted by half, while the average cost per trip more than doubled and complaints soared.

Concerns about the privatized transportation services were included in a January report from an independent government agency — the Legislative Budget Board. Ironically, that report might never have seen the light of day had Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick gotten his way.

The Republican firebrand tried to stop the LBB from issuing its biennial Government Effectiveness and Efficiency (GEER) Report — which contained the damning information about the medical transportation contracts — but House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio ordered the agency to put them online.

Smith said he asked the Inspector General to investigate the medical transportation program on March 8.

State Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, wondered out loud why Smith didn’t refer the matter sooner, particularly since the committee zeroed in on the medical transportation contracting woes on March 2. Smith answered that he wasn’t aware of the committee hearing.

“You were not aware of that hearing?” an incredulous Turner responded. “Really? That’s surprising since your agency was the main topic of the hearing.”

Smith replied: “I’ve asked that question myself as to why I was not aware of these hearings.”

Smith and other agency officials were also grilled about HHSC’s failure to publicly identify all of his agency’s high-dollar government contracts as required. The Texas Tribune reported last week that Capriglione had demanded HHSC to complete its reporting to the LBB of contracts worth $100 million or more. The contracts are supposed to be uploaded into a database that LBB maintains.

Deputy commissioner Ron Pigott pointed out at Thursday's hearing that the agency had a “tremendous load” of contracts and was still struggling to get the work completed even after spending thousands of dollars on temporary employees to help with the job. But he said the contracts Capriglione wanted “should be there tonight.’

Turner was asking Pigott if he needed more state employees to get all the contract information uploaded into the LBB database when Smith fell on the sword.

“I’ll take responsibility for that,” Smith said. “And I will say that we’ll go back and we’ll make sure that we get the people and we’ll get the contracts in. Simple as that.”

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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