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Health exchange denies Hispano chamber protest

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

The state’s health insurance exchange, beWellnm, has denied a protest from the Albuquerque Hispano Chamber of Commerce in the procurement process that awarded a $3.2 million contract to a competing organization, The Waite Co. LLC.

In its December protest, the chamber said it had “concerns regarding notice, hearing, the decision-making process, candidate scoring and communications” in the process, according to a copy of the protest obtained by the Journal.

Among the chamber’s allegations in the protest: that the criteria on which the proposals were scored changed without notice, that the exchange delayed its decision to benefit The Waite Co., and that a “personal and professional relationship” between exchange CEO Cheryl Gardner and Waite Co. Vice President Matt Kennicott created a potential conflict of interest.

BeWellnm spokesman Tom Garrity, whose public relations firm is a subcontractor for The Waite Co., referred the Journal to letters sent by beWellnm officials to chamber leadership in which the exchange rebutted each of the allegations and described the protest as being “without merit.”

In one letter, procurement manager Maureen Manning wrote that “Ms. Gardner explained that she had met Mr. Kennicott in a professional context, while previously working as a contractor for (the New Mexico Human Services Department), but that she is not a close personal friend of Mr. Kennicott’s.”

Kennicott directed questions to attorney Juan Flores, who is representing The Waite Co. in a defamation lawsuit against the chamber and its CEO, Ernie C’de Baca. Flores said in an email that the exchange had found the allegations of a potential conflict of interest to be “unsupported, and, in fact, contradicted by evidence in the record.”

The exchange denied the chamber’s protest on May 25.

The award – which consolidated the outreach, education, marketing, advertising, communications and public relations functions that had previously been handled by multiple contractors – was executed in January.

There are now 49,792 New Mexicans who purchased their health insurance through the exchange, according to beWellnm.

At a March beWellnm meeting, C’de Baca criticized what he said was a lack of diversity on the procurement committee and an ad hoc board committee that reviewed the contract award. He argued that the process failed to give sufficient consideration to Hispanic interests, noting that 48 percent of the state is Hispanic.

In an interview Wednesday, C’de Baca told the Journal that while he did not intend those comments to be “litigated in the press,” he stands by the sentiment behind them.

“I am for New Mexicans, I am for Hispanic business, and I want to promote both of those things as much as I possibly can,” C’de Baca said.

C’de Baca also said he felt that his suggestion at the meeting that the chamber be awarded roughly half of The Waite Co.’s contract had been unfairly portrayed by the media. He said he offered the suggestion because the exchange had instructed the chamber to come up with a proposed remedy, which it then denied.

The Journal first reported the controversy on May 22.

Also at the March meeting, Michelle Hernandez, the chamber’s chairwoman and an attorney with the Modrall Sperling Law Firm, told the exchange that the chamber would pursue legal action against both the exchange and The Waite Co. if its protest was denied.

But on Wednesday, Hernandez said it would be “premature” to consider legal action. She said the chamber is focused on defending itself from The Waite Co.’s lawsuit.

Hernandez also said some of the chamber’s thoughts on the procurement process have changed since it filed the protest. Although she said the chamber still questions some of the evidence the exchange used to score the proposals, it does not, for example, believe the scoring criteria changed over the course of the process.

Hernandez told the Journal that Matt Baca, senior counsel for the New Mexico Attorney General’s office, is investigating the exchange’s procurement process.

A spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office said it can neither “confirm nor deny an existence of an investigation.”