The Maryland Department of Health has a backlog of unpaid bills owed to contracted healthcare providers and grantees that are six months old.
According to Del. Kirill Reznik (D-Montgomery), the agency has accumulated over 900 outstanding invoices since July 2021. Providers have provided services to the state, including psychological counseling and assistance in connecting people to opioid abuse treatment.
“The cyberattack — the ransomware attack — while slowing things down in December, doesn’t answer why people haven’t been paid since July,” Reznik told Maryland Health Secretary Dennis R. Schrader during a session of the House Subcommittee on Health and Human Services Committee on Monday afternoon.
Reznik’s revelation comes as the agency continues to grapple with staffing shortages and myriad problems at the chief medical examiner’s office.
Amalie Brandenburg, finance chief at the health ministry, said the reason for the payment delay was the result of a “perfect storm”.
Brandenburg says vacancies in the agency’s general accounting department, the significant sum of money spent fighting COVID-19, and the “network security incident” that crippled the health ministry’s network in early December all played a role in the backlog .
“Yes, there was a problem. I’m happy to report that we’re doing well on the other side,” Brandenburg told Reznik.
She said the Department of Health has been processing a higher volume of bills and expects “to clear the backlog by the end of the month”.
Reznik said some vendors have had to borrow to pay their employees “because they’re not being paid by the department on properly approved invoices.”
Reznik, a government contractor, pointed to the federal Prompt Pay Act, which says the government must pay its contracted service providers an interest penalty if their bills aren’t paid within 30 days.
“Is there any compensation for the vendors who are literally borrowing to keep their workers busy while you all deal with the backlog?” asked Reznik Brandenburg.
Brandenburg said the department hadn’t considered it “at this point in time,” but told Reznik she was willing to discuss the possibility in a separate call.
Reznik placed a focus on accountability within the Department of Health in this session.
On Monday night, the House Health and Government Operations Committee’s subcommittee on Public Health and Minority Health Disparities voted on a measure Reznik is sponsoring to require the state to maintain adequate staffing in the chief medical examiner’s office.
Under the bill, the bureau would be required to employ enough staff to avoid violating the standards of the National Association of Medical Examiners, the bureau’s accrediting body.
A “phase two” violation by the association—violations related to failure to meet staffing, investigative, or morgue operational standards—may result in downgrading or revocation of an agency’s accreditation status.
The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner has such a significant autopsy backlog that former Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Victor Weedn, who resigned on Friday, has reached out to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Disaster Mortuary Operations Response Team for help.
These teams typically assist state and local governments after natural disasters, terrorist attacks, transportation accidents, and other emergencies.
Reznik said Monday that the crisis the agency is facing is one of its own making, noting that it has relied heavily on day workers to perform autopsies in recent years.
Forensic pathologists make $850 a day for every case they take on. They are often retired or flown in from other states.
Reznik said several full-time Maryland forensic scientists who are nearing retirement left the agency early, only to come back as day workers.
“Last year five of them retired and all have returned on a daily basis,” he told the subcommittee. “So they collect their pension and they collect $850 and they get easier cases because the bonuses tend to get the easier cases resolved.”
According to Reznik, this is demoralizing for the bureau’s full-time staff, who are assigned to more serious cases for less pay.
“This office created the problem,” he continued. “It’s not a question of money but the fact that they only raised salaries significantly this year when the crisis hit and the fact that they only reopened those 21 pins this year when the crisis hit have … shows a lack of foresight and held accountable.”
The bill passed the subcommittee unanimously.