By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org
Florida’s Department of Children and Families awarded a $44 million-a-year contract to privatize the management of mental health services in Broward without required rules in place to promote public scrutiny.
The Broward Behavioral Health Coalition, an upstart not-for-profit led by former DCF Secretary Bob Butterworth, won the award last March amid allegations of bid manipulation.
Final contract negotiations are underway and state officials expect a contract to be signed by Nov. 1.
But documents obtained by Broward Bulldog.org show DCF has not adopted administrative rules prescribed by the Legislature in 2008 that specify how regional managing entities like Broward Behavioral should be chosen and run.
DCF Secretary David E. Wilkins acknowledged his agency’s inaction in a June 26 letter to State Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, the Fort Lauderdale Republican who co-chairs the Legislature’s Joint Administrative Procedures Committee.
“The department’s approach to implementing managing entities…has been in a process of refinement over the past several years,” said Wilkins.
“With our approaches and strategies regarding managing entities changing over time, rule-making was not appropriate.”
Bogdanoff queried Wilkins after receiving a May 2 letter from the Florida Council for Community Mental Health, a statewide association of health-care providers. The council complained that DCF was looking to award contracts without rules “that meet any standard for public scrutiny, transparency or public participation.”
Bogdanoff later told Wilkins, “The department appears to be acting outside the scope of the…rule making process, which is designed to ensure public participation.”
She also asked Wilkins to halt the procurement process “until rules are formally adopted” – including the Broward Behavioral deal
That did not happen.
BOGDANOFF BACKS OFF
But Bogdanoff said Friday that she had a different view after speaking with Wilkins.
The secretary, she said, sincerely wants to make DCF more efficient and “deserves some latitude” as he seeks to achieve estimated savings of $177 million over the next four years – dollars Wilkins has pledged will be redirected to patient care.
The money is to come from mandated administrative cost reductions.
“He was not necessarily violating the rule-making process,” said Bogdanoff, who is currently running for re-election. “He does not believe that this is different from any other procurement issue and that the department didn’t need rules. I don’t think he’s wrong about that.”
Florida, the nation’s fourth most populous state, currently ranks 49thin the nation in per capita funding for mental health services, according to the DCF’s website.
In his reply letter, Wilkins told Bogdanoff that “entrenched interests” were opposing his reform efforts.
DCF is actively privatizing oversight of substance abuse and mental health services around the state. Those duties include administration of an array of government-funded services such as crisis intervention and detoxification.
By law, only nonprofits can serve as managing entities. But several groups , including Broward Behavioral, have major for-profit subcontractors – fueling accusations that the nonprofits are mere front organizations.
Broward Behavioral’s subcontractor is Concordia Behavioral Health, a Miami company led by Miami businessman Carlos Saladrigas.
Butterworth, a former Broward sheriff, judge and Florida attorney general, is the chairman of Broward Behavioral and also its lead negotiator with the state.
Butterworth did not respond to a request for comment, but in June he told Sun-Sentinel columnist Michael Mayo that Concordia is paying him to serve as its lobbyist and attorney.
The loser in the race to become Broward’s first managing entity was the Partnership for Community Health, a group of established mental health providers led by Dr. Steven Ronik of Fort Lauderdale’s Henderson Behavioral Health.
Broward Behavioral and Partnership for Community Health were the only two companies last winter that submitted sealed bids for the work.
WINNER LACKED PAPERWORK
Six of eight state evaluators ranked Partnership for Community Health higher, and it received the highest total score. Moreover, those officials deemed Broward Behavioral “non-responsive” because it did not include paperwork demonstrating financial stability.
Typically, companies that submit non-responsive bids are disqualified.
But a “wrinkle” in the process – as described by DCF’s general counsel – instead allowed DCF to bypass competitive bidding and negotiate directly with whomever it wanted.
This time, Broward Behavioral came out on top.
The Partnership for Community Health filed a bid protest shortly after the decision that later landed in court. It alleged unnamed state officials had steered the contract to Butterworth’s group and also insulated themselves from administrative and judicial review.
An appellate panel dismissed the challenge because the Partnership for Community Health did not post a required appeal bond.
The court did not address the underlying corruption allegations, but a DCF spokesman said they were false.
In his June letter to Bogdanoff, Wilkins said DCF now has sufficient experience to begin the rule-making process. An initial workshop meeting was held July 30. Officials said they expect the process to take 18 months.