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State COVID-19 call center, set up as vaccine demand skyrocketed, cost at least $4.2 million for first weeks

Legislator sees “rushed, almost manic” timing in contracts

Governor Charlie Baker unveiled a new call center to help seniors 75 years and older book vaccine appointments at a press conference on Feb. 5.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

The day after nearly half a million seniors became eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, the Baker administration engaged three companies to set up a call center to manage the mad scramble for appointments, costing the state at least $4.2 million so far.

The final price tag could be considerably higher, given that just one of the contractors, a company called Maximus Inc., has so far submitted an invoice for its first month’s work on the 211 call center — for nearly $3.5 million.

Records obtained by The Boston Globe show that Marylou Sudders, the state’s health secretary, signed all three contracts Feb. 23. But the companies began incurring costs related to the call center on Jan. 28, the day after people 75 and older became eligible for vaccines, dramatically increasing the demand — and public frustrations at their inability to get appointments.

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State lawmakers on Tuesday are expected to question top Baker administration officials about the vaccine program, including the call center. Several said they had many questions, even after a five-hour hearing last month.

“It sounds to me like they basically were caught unprepared and pulled the fire alarm and just started signing contracts to get the thing up and running as fast as they could,” said Senator Eric Lesser, a Longmeadow Democrat, on Monday.

On Jan. 28, Lesser filed legislation calling for a centralized, one-stop website portal in multiple languages for residents to sign up for a shot, and also a centralized call center in multiple languages for those who don’t have access to the Internet or who need additional assistance. The AARP was also calling on the governor to create a toll-free number to help seniors register.

The state unveiled its call center on Feb. 5, and at a press conference that day, Baker said, “We recognize the call center will be a better option for many older adults who may not have someone to help them book an appointment online.” He said 500 workers would staff the line.

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Many of Lesser’s constituents live in the Western part of the state, where there is little or no broadband Internet access. But, on the day many seniors became eligible for vaccines, he said, “the appointments were only available by website and that would have frozen out multiple communities.”

He also said that the launch of the three contracts the very next day suggest “a rushed, almost manic” timing.

A Command Center spokeswoman said the state signed short term contracts with three companies as a temporary solution, with plans to hold a competitive bid for the long term contract. The spokeswoman noted that the call center so far has helped more than 50,000 people obtain appointments.

The largest of the three contracts was awarded to Maximus, a publicly traded Virginia company that performs call center work nationwide and is providing COVID-19 caller services to several areas, including California, Colorado, New York, and the District of Columbia.

The agreement says customer service representatives will provide information and assistance to customers about vaccinations, scheduling sites, and availability in English and Spanish. The company is also responsible for tracking the number of calls and how long callers are waiting in queues.

An invoice already submitted by Maximus for its first month of operations shows it spent nearly $3.5 million, including $41,000 in overtime hours and $106,000 in start-up costs.

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A second contract was awarded to Optum Government Solutions, a Minnesota company formerly hired in 2014 by the Deval Patrick administration to fix the state’s flawed Health Connector insurance website. In its current contract, Optum is required to perform services similar to those provided by Maximus, including helping callers schedule COVID-19 vaccination appointments and ,dispensing other COVID-related information.

The document notes that by the time the agreement was signed by Sudders on Feb. 23, Optum had already incurred $601,000 in expenses related to the call center. The agreement requires Optum to hire 133 customer service agents at an hourly rate of about $35.

The third contract, to F.H. Cann and Associates of North Andover, again describes call center duties similar to those of Maximus and Optum. It requires the company to provide up to 300 customer service agents, at an hourly rate of $33. Those who are bilingual, as well as supervisors, managers and other staff, receive $41 an hour. The agreement also stipulates that Cann ensure “immediate access to translation services in other languages in addition to English and Spanish upon determination of need.”

The family-owned company retooled its call center services, which are normally used by business clients, to assist with the state’s COVID-19 response.

The contract notes the company incurred costs of $186,648 in its first month. But Cann has not yet submitted an invoice, according to the Baker administration, which also said in an e-mail it was searching for any invoices submitted by Optum.

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Records show that the state began seeking competitive bids for call center vendors on Feb. 24, nearly a month after the three companies had already launched it. The initial round of contracts expire on March 26, although they include an option for extension.

The request for response proposal notes that the state is conducting its procurement process on a “expedited timeline,” to make sure “phased priority groups are able to obtain vaccinations as expeditiously as possible.”


Kay Lazar can be reached at kay.lazar@globe.com Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar. Anissa Gardizy can be reached at anissa.gardizy@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @anissagardizy8 and on Instagram @anissagardizy.journalism.