Oregon state government has offered plenty of words over the past year or so touting its efforts to help promote jobs with decent wages in rural Oregon.
But we remain skeptical about state officials’ commitment to turning those words into actions — which is to say, into jobs.
Our lack of confidence stems in part from the experience that a Baker City company, Chaves Consulting, has had with the state over the past year.
Although Chaves Consulting, which operates a call center in Baker City, has secured multiple contracts with the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) related to the Oregon Health Plan, none has lasted longer than one year. This hardly constitutes the sort of sustainable economic growth that Gov. Kate Brown talked about in her inaugural address in January 2017. Later that month the state declined to extend a contract with Chaves Consulting even though the pact included up to five one-year extensions. That forced the company to lay off 54 employees who had been earning a minimum of $12 per hour, plus health insurance and other benefits.
OHA later signed a pair of 90-day contracts with Chaves Consulting, but the second contract, which allowed the company to employ 26 people at its Baker City call center, ended Nov. 30.
We’re not suggesting that the state has an obligation to hire Chaves Consulting or any other particular company in rural Oregon.
However, we’ve not been satisfied with state officials’ explanations for why agencies haven’t offered longer term contracts for call center work. Indeed, the evidence strongly implies that the need for such work is growing. Earlier this year, at the same time the state was canceling its contract with Chaves Consulting, officials were asking the Legislature for money to hire 77 more state employees to work at a call center in Salem. Not only were those jobs not in rural Oregon, but they cost taxpayers about twice as much, per worker, as the Chaves Consulting contract did.
There are some limitations. Federal rules, for instance, require certain tasks, such as determining Medicaid eligibility, to be done by government workers. Jay Remy, communications director for the Oregon Department of Human Services, wrote in an email to the Herald that officials are working on a proposal to hire new state employees to do that type of work in rural Oregon, since some of the tasks can be handled over the phone.
That’s intriguing. But “rural Oregon” covers a pretty big chunk of the state, and we’re not optimistic that the state’s plan to dole out public employees to rural areas, should it come to fruition, would contribute as much to Baker County’s economy as the Chaves Consulting contracts have done.
Moreover, state officials have acknowledged that aspects of Medicaid enrollment potentially can be done by private contractors. A funding bill that Gov. Brown signed on Aug. 15 — House Bill 5006 — includes a note from state officials that the Department of Human Services will submit a report, by June 30, 2018, to the Legislature’s Interim Joint Committee on Ways and Means that includes “a plan to increase jobs in rural Oregon including the option of outsourcing, in order to provide the highest quality, most efficient and cost effective Medicaid enrollment services to Oregonians.”
We would think this report would be relatively easy to write, considering that its authors need only to review the recent state contracts with Chaves Consulting to see that outsourcing tasks to private firms in rural Oregon can achieve those goals of quality, efficiency and thriftiness.
Alas, one more report will add to the word count, but it won’t, by itself, create any jobs.