TALLAHASSEE -- Looking for a lesson in how government outsourcing is working in Florida?
Try this: Organizations that win business with the little-known state Division of Blind Services can bill taxpayers $58 an hour for travel time to meet with a blind person. The same organizations can charge taxpayers $2,000 or more to place one phone call.
If the deal sounds good for the groups that win the no-bid state contracts, it’s because it is.
Why? Because the private third-party vendors largely dictate the terms and receive little oversight, former Division of Blind Services employees say.
The state agency with a $52 million budget has largely privatized its support programs as a way to save money and better serve a group of 11,000 Floridians in need, state officials say.
But the results are mixed, at best.
Employee complaints about the Division of Blind Services have spawned at least three government investigations and four whistleblower lawsuits, all alleging waste on some scale.
Blind Services Director Joyce Hildreth, who worked at a group that received state contracts before joining the state in 2008, defends the state division. Under her leadership, she says, the division has repaired fragmented relationships with vendors while implementing stricter penalties for non-performing providers. Hildreth, 65, earns $119,000.
“My expectation of both (the vendors) and the division staff is that they will work together to the benefit of the client,” she said.
The record, however, isn’t so clear cut.
An annual summer meeting between the state and 16 Division of Blind Services providers offers a window into the uneven influence the groups have over an agency that is supposed to oversee them.
Their joint mission is to line up ways to help blind Floridians manage their disability from infancy to old age. The division and its outsourced vendors train blind people for everyday tasks from using a cane to pouring water without spilling. The division also operates a program to help blind people find jobs.
At the meeting, state workers and the vendors appear to be business partners, according to several current and former employees who have attended. But the vendors decide the performance criteria and penalties.
“I tried to get (the vendors) to suggest how we could get a mechanism in place so we don’t feed their coffers and have poor service,” said Jerry Edwards, a former contract manager who was fired in 2010 after he criticized the “lack of meat” in the contracts. “The attitude, from Joyce and from (the vendors) of not wanting to go there, was a real problem.”
Signs of waste are everywhere, former employees Edwards, Julius Kimmie, Robert Irons and Mary Ellen Ottman said in separate interviews.
Although the law requires state workers to monitor all 16 providers through yearly unscheduled visits, the state only visited one vendor last year, documents show. Hildreth said the agency monitors the vendors by phone.
Loosely written contracts also allow vendors to make big money by taking advantage of loopholes, the former employees say.
Providers, for example, are paid from about $2,000 to $9,000 for each person it plans to serve. The state pays the money no matter how — or how many times — a provider helps a client.
So whether a provider makes 10 in-house visits, or just one phone call, the money comes in the all the same.