Sunday, December 8, 2013
She's heard all the talk from all the politicians about how Maine's future hinges on its small businesses.
And as the owner of such a business, Kate Meyers recently stood ready, willing and able to add three full-time positions to her payroll -- complete with full Dirigo Choice health benefits she provides to her workers at no cost.
No, we're not talking about the mountains of red tape -- real or imagined -- that Gov. Paul LePage likes to blame for keeping Maine in the economic breakdown lane.
"We're talking about India," Meyers said Tuesday. "We're talking about halfway around the world."
Meyers is president of Brown and Meyers, a transcription and records-management service on Washington Avenue in Portland.
Founded in 1994, it has grown from a small court-reporting firm to one that employs six staffers and 75 independent contractors. Together, they churn out everything from court transcripts and medical reports to insurance records and whatever else needs to be scanned, organized or punched into a keyboard.
References? Try Unum, Liberty Mutual, York Hospital, the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, the Maine Public Utilities Commission, the state Medical Examiner's Office, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services ...
Qualifications? Try certifications from the Computer Technology Information Association, the Women's Business Enterprise National Council and the all-important Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, known as HIPAA.
Last spring, while LePage was still a dark horse looking to succeed then-Gov. John Baldacci, Meyers' company submitted a bid for the $100,000-a-year contract to provide transcripts to the DHHS for use in determining eligibility for disability benefits.
The competition was fierce. Of the 41 firms that bid, the DHHS selection committee immediately tossed out 21 proposals for things like failure to use page numbers and other technical flaws -- the theory being that if the bid packages weren't letter-perfect, then the work might not be either.
Based on a 100-point scale, the remaining 20 firms were scored on their qualifications and experience (25 points), technical expertise (25 points), customer service (25 points) and cost (25 points).
Brown and Meyers came in second, with a total of 90.4 points. First place, at 92.4 points, went to Czerenda Court Reporting Services of Binghamton, N.Y.
Check that. The company is in New York, but the people who actually do the work are in India.
It's all perfectly legal. In fact, Czerenda (which did not respond to a request for an interview Tuesday) was the previous contract holder -- and as the state's request for proposals noted in black and white, "currently all of the transcription is outsourced overseas."
Meyers knows all about this "outsourced overseas" business. She gets calls and e-mails almost daily from companies in places like India, looking to snag a piece of Brown and Meyers' action.
"They're very aggressive," said Meyers, whose standard response is thanks, but no thanks.
Normally, Meyers dispatches her work to her independent transcribers, who are spread out across the United States. But because the DHHS contract offered such steady work, she planned to assign it to three new, full-time workers in her Portland office if her bid won.
"We definitely had the references and the capability to do it," she said.
Didn't matter. In fact, the state never even checked the references -- turns out it does that only if there's a tie.
In October, while the state echoed with pre-election calls for "Maine jobs for Maine people," Meyers hired a lawyer and went to Augusta to appeal the awarding of the contract to Czerenda.
Meyers conceded that Czerenda's price quote was 0.7 cents per line lower than hers -- meaning it would cost the state about $6,000 more for Brown and Meyers to do the same amount of work.
But she argued that her bid scores should have been higher on experience and HIPAA compliance (HIPAA protection in India? Really?) and that slight upward adjustments in those criteria would have put her on top.
She lost the appeal. And tempted as she was to go to court, she'd already paid her lawyers too much to keep fighting.
Still smoldering, Meyers and Sarah Harding, Brown and Meyers' operations manager, wrote to the governor's office last week in the hope that they might get a better reception from the all-business-all-the-time LePage administration.
They did get a same-day response from Michael Wenzel, acting director of the state's Division of Purchases. He explained that Maine long ago did away with its practice of giving preference to in-state vendors because it invites retaliation from other states when they weigh bids they get from Maine firms.
"We're really sympathetic and we understand (Meyers') concerns," Wenzel said in an interview Tuesday. "It's just that there's really no recourse in this instance -- we're guided by statute."
(Other states aren't quite so reticent about favoring their own. According to a 2009 survey by the National Association of State Purchasing Officers, at least 27 states currently "provide a legal preference for in-state bidders or products.")
Meyers at least understands the concept of reciprocal preference policies among the states. But she's still having a hard time getting her head around the fact that Maine would knowingly ship this work to India to save $6,000 -- and in doing so squelch the creation of three full-time, state-income-tax-paying jobs right here at home.
"We keep hearing all the time that we need to keep the jobs in Maine," Meyers said. "It's really sad."
Indeed. And even under an administration that makes Maine small business its "Job One" priority, there's no sign it's going to change.
"It's a tough case," conceded Dan Demeritt, LePage's communications director, after he looked into Meyers' complaint. "But there are rules (the state's purchasing agents) have to follow."
All the way to India.
Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: email@example.com