DC Council hits pause button on city contract to extend Medicaid benefits

Health care for Medicaid recipients in D.C. is in limbo yet again: The D.C. Council has effectively hit the pause button on a contract with the health care provider that was set to extend benefits to a quarter-million residents.

The complicated twists and turns of the contract process is entirely bureaucratic, and could result in the District’s most-vulnerable residents losing access to their doctors during a pandemic.

As the District’s Medicaid contract was less than a month from expiring, Mayor Muriel Bowser declared a state of emergency, allowing her administration to enter into a contract extension with MedStar Health.

The nine-month extension allowed for D.C. to restart the process of finding its next Medicaid provider. A previous selection process had awarded the contract to MedStar, but a judge last year nullified the award, citing a failure of the health care company to meet the requirements to win the $3 billion bid.

The contract extension would have passively passed the council had it not taken action in 10 days. But four council members co-signed a resolution of disapproval Friday, allowing it to “extend our review period from 10 to 45 days,” the resolution reads.

Four members of the council, Chair Phil Mendelson, Kenyan McDuffie, Elissa Silverman, and Robert White, co-signed the resolution, which questions the legality of the contracts.

“Extending our review period also gives time to the Mayor to re-evaluate the bid
proposals as ordered by the Contract Appeals Board last December 1st (the CAB expressly ordered the District to “re-evaluate the competitive range offerors’ proposals in accordance with District procurement law and regulation, the terms of the solicitation, and the instant decision,” Mendelson wrote in the resolution.

The council wants more time to review but has three options. First, to do nothing, which Mendelson contends given the controversy and legal advice, is “not a positive image for the Council.” The second option would be to disapprove the contracts, and the final option would be to act by emergency legislation and overrule the CAB’s decision and approve the contracts.

Deputy Mayor Wayne Turnage believes the mayor’s move to enter into extended contracts via emergency order was the only way forward.

“The mayor has responsibly submitted these contracts under emergency to avoid any disruption in the health care for over 250,000 people. That is the extent of what she can do at this point. So really, it’s up to the council,” said Turnage.

In response to the council’s resolution, the mayor outlined the potential outcomes of letting the contract expire. Among them, she said, the Department of Health Care Finance will have no legal authority to pay for health care services; District residents will have to navigate the health care system; and health care costs will likely increase.

“To avoid these substantial, unnecessary, and harmful disruptions, I urge Chairman Phil Mendelson to withdraw the disapproval resolution immediately as the Department of Health Care Finance resolicits the procurement over the next few months in order to add additional services for beneficiaries and to address the Council’s concerns,” Bowser said. 

The council is out on recess until Oct. 1, and sources within the council said its rules prohibit council members from voting until it reconvenes. Its next legislative meeting is set for Oct. 5.

“I think you could have made the argument early in his process that this was such a challenging issue, that people of goodwill were legitimately confused as to what should be done. I don’t think you can make that argument anymore. Everybody understands precisely what has happened. And precisely what will happen if the council disapprove these contracts. Or if they just take the entire 45 day review period,” Turnage told WTOP.

Megan Cloherty

WTOP Investigative Reporter Megan Cloherty primarily covers breaking news, crime and courts.

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