Minimizing Maximus' claims

Delegate challenges enforcement firm's survey on service

March 03, 2002|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Maximus Inc., the private company that runs child-support enforcement in Baltimore, is telling Maryland lawmakers that when it surveyed 1,807 of its customers last year, 1,807 said the company receptionist greeted them promptly and courteously.

But last week, when Del. Lisa A. Gladden visited its downtown Baltimore office to check out its service, she found no receptionist. The West Baltimore lawmaker was given a number and had to wait an hour to be told the office couldn't help with her inquiry.

"There was no service whatsoever," Gladden said. "The woman who spoke to me, she never got off the telephone. She was having a private conversation."

Maximus' treatment of customers has emerged as one of the central issues raised in the increasingly contentious wrangle over legislation that would give the Virginia-based company an opportunity for a three-year extension of its lucrative contract to provide child-support services in Baltimore and Queen Anne's County.

While the measure would not guarantee that Maximus will continue as the contractor, the company could have significant cost advantages over non-incumbent bidders.

The bill is being fought by Gov. Parris N. Glendening and his allies in organized labor, who contend that public employees have shown they can do a better job.

The administration has based its opposition on a Johns Hopkins University study showing superior results in four counties where state-run agencies used innovative management techniques. Privatization proponents have dismissed the study as cover for a concession to public employee unions.

So far, Maximus appears to be winning. Powered by the lobbying of Bruce C. Bereano and the support of powerful committee chairmen, the legislation is expected to come to a vote in the House of Delegates and Senate this week.

Much of the debate has centered on money, specifically whether Maximus is doing a good job of improving child-support collections in Baltimore.

That record is mixed: The company has met its contractual monetary goals, by collecting $131 million over the first two years of its contract. However, that total falls short of the $152 million it estimated it would collect when it bid on the contract.

Over its first two years, Maximus earned $22.7 million in Baltimore.

Maximus' critics contend that the company has put too much emphasis on collecting money and not enough on serving customers. Among other things, they point to a steep increase in the amount of money collected from noncustodial parents in Baltimore but not paid out to families.

From December 2000 to the end of 2001, undisbursed collections - money that sits in a state bank account without benefiting children - have grown from $1.8 million to $2.8 million. The city's total accounted for about two-thirds of the state's undistributed funds.

Maximus officials have told lawmakers that they are working to correct the problem and that they aren't benefiting from the increase. But Teresa Kaiser, the state's child-support enforcement director, said the company is paid upfront based on the amount it collects, not the amount it distributes. As long as the money isn't refunded to the noncustodial parents, it counts toward the company's contractual goals, she said.

Maximus, which has held the contract since late 1999, claims to have made significant strides in serving both custodial and noncustodial parents.

There is anecdotal evidence that service has improved since Maximus took over the contract from Lockheed Martin IMS, whose three-year tenure gave a disastrous start to the state's experiment in privatization.

Jackie Greenfield, who handles constituent calls for Baltimore Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, said complaints about missing child-support payments have decreased since Maximus took over the contract from Lockheed Martin IMS in late 1999. When there are complaints, Maximus officials are more responsive than their predecessors, she said.

"They're much better than Lockheed," she said. "Maximus is doing a much better job now."

Del. Howard P. Rawlings, chairman of the Appropriations Committee and a leading supporter of privatization, said that, while Maximus has its problems, it has improved service. He said he doesn't think the state Department of Human Resources, whose failings helped bring about privatization in 1995, could do any better.

"Given the unique characteristics of Baltimore City, they are doing substantially better than state government was six years ago," the Baltimore Democrat said.

Maximus, however, has gone beyond that to claim a customer service record that even some privatization backers find implausible.

Melissa Pappas, a Maximus vice president, told lawmakers in January that the company has shortened waiting times from four hours to less than 15 minutes. The company's survey says 97.5 percent were served within a quarter-hour.

Sen. George W. Della, a South Baltimore Democrat who says he receives many complaints about Maximus, said the numbers are not believable.

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