Republicans and Democrats are both questioning Gov. Greg Abbott over a $295 million contract for COVID-19 contact tracing. Most of the criticism has focused on the hasty process and its lack of transparency but some conservatives have also expressed privacy concerns regarding the program itself.
The ambitious procurement timeline allowed a two-day bidding window that closed on May 7. By May 13, a contract had been awarded to MTX Group and signed by the acting executive commissioner of Texas Health and Human Services. Other bidders included IBM, Accenture, and AT&T Global Business Services. A heavily redacted version of the contract was released after questions were raised, but Hearst Newspapers managed to obtain an unredacted copy. It outlined company plans to track infected individuals, the people they have come into contact with, and their families. MTX Group says tracing will be done through a virtual call center of more than 4,000 agents, and in coordination with local agencies that have their own contact tracing measures in place.
MTX Group is contracted with a dozen or so other states to do similar tracing but It’s unclear if any of the contracts include the depth and scale of their Texas contract. The Frisco business address of MTX Group is represented by GOP state Sen. Angela Paxton. She told the Dallas Morning News that legislators expect Texas Health and Human Services to conduct a rigorous vetting process and that a “vendor’s ability to perform such large-scale services for the state of Texas, are questions that deserve straightforward answers.” Sen. Paxton is the wife of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton whose office is required by law to review all state contracts over $250 million, including this one.
The critiques come amid conservative pushback over unilateral decision making that has emanated from the governor’s office. Republican state Sen. Paul Bettencourt said that legislators have “a ton of questions” regarding the contract and complained about a lack of “legislative oversight.” Republican state Rep. James White echoed those concerns when he requested the governor call a special session to discuss being “good stewards of that money.”
The selection process and hefty price tag aren’t the only concerns for conservative lawmakers, the very nature of the contact tracing challenges their philosophical aversion to trusting the government. The entire program is currently being challenged in federal court by Dr. Steve Hotze, an influential right-wing activist from Houston. In an email to his supporters he wrote, “We sure don’t need contact tracing now. The government can only want contact tracing to be able to monitor and control you in the future.”
According to the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS), “slowing the spread of COVID-19 by using contact tracing and other mitigation efforts helps Texas open the economy safer and faster.” DSHS currently has an online system called Texas Health Trace set up for individuals who have tested positive to report their exposure. The new contract with MTX Group is for 27 months, which covers the two years — the state believes — it may take for a vaccine to be available.
Democrat state Rep. Donna Howard, who holds a Bachelor’s Degree in nursing and a Master’s in health education, said of the issue, “We need to have something that has a certain amount of assurance here that we have people who know what they’re doing…We don’t have time to waste here. People will die if we don’t get this right.”
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Joe Deshotel is originally from Beaumont, Texas, but a combination of live music, politics, and natural beauty brought him to Austin in 2010. He has over a decade of experience in public policy that covers federal, state, and local government and has worked on a number of successful election campaigns. He continues to consult on Democratic campaigns and serves as the Chair of Austin’s Community Development Commission which advocates for affordable housing and solutions for homelessness.