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Last week, New York City Public Advocate Mark Green charged that one of the firms about to get big bucks from the mayor’s new welfare-to-work contracts has faltered in its performance on another crucial social services contract. For-profit Maximus, Inc., is getting $24 million from New York State to help Medicaid patients figure out how to sign up for managed care, a confusing process that more than one million city residents will have to negotiate in the next 18 months.

But according to Green’s report, Maximus has fallen down on the job, leaving patients misinformed about how managed care works and ignorant of their obligations and rights as patients. At many of the 25 public forums that the advocate’s researchers attended, few or no clients showed up–and sometimes the trainers didn’t show up, either.

Counselors at the company’s toll-free phone line, while courteous, were often wrong. Through a telephone survey, the report found that, on average, the operators could only answer two out of 12 questions about benefits and rights accurately. Pregnant women, for example, weren’t told that they don’t have to switch to managed care, and the counselors often neglected to mention that patients have the right to appeal denials.

Advocates second Green’s findings. “Maximus just stonewalls people in a highly inappropriate way,” charged Elisabeth Benjamin of the Legal Aid Society. Benjamin recently filed a federal civil rights complaint against the company on behalf of a Russian client, alleging that it discriminates against non-English-speaking Medicaid recipients.

“The report is right on target,” agreed David Wunsch, a policy analyst for Care for the Homeless, which helps homeless people find health care. “You have a very complicated program, and what they’re endeavoring to do is mammoth.”

Green’s report acknowledged that Maximus has been saddled with a very difficult job, and it lays much of the blame with the city and state agencies that oversee the process.

The findings, however, cast doubt on the company’s ability to manage $103 million worth of welfare-to-work contracts. “Certainly we think that a longer, harder look should be taken at Maximus in general,” said Green Press Secretary Steve Sigmund. The company’s press representative did not return a request for comment.

Those contracts, along with 15 others, are currently the subject of a nasty political firestorm. City Comptroller Alan Hevesi has refused to approve them, charging that they were inappropriately bid.

At a marathon City Council hearing last week, skeptical councilmembers backed Hevesi up, pointing out that the welfare contracts were let in a way that minimized competition and facilitated sweetheart deals. Maximus, along with many of the other groups selected for the contracts, has close ties to upper-level administration officials.

“I suspect that this process has another agenda,” said Harlem Councilman Bill Perkins. “It begins to smell like there’s something wrong here.”

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