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Texas’ Contact Tracing Company Says Little About Plans

The company that won the state’s $295 million contact tracing contract hasn’t revealed the subcontractors involved or how much tracers are being paid. The company also won’t discuss details of previous work it's done.

(TNS) — A little-known North Texas company that recently won the state’s nod to coordinate contact tracing for coronavirus patients has hired 605 people for the job, but is offering few details of how it will help Texas achieve its ambitious goals.

In his first interview since his Frisco-based MTX Group Inc. won the $295 million, 27-month state contract, company founder and chief executive Das Nobel said it is off to a good start and he has confidence it'll be a success.

“Within the first three days of this project, we have had success because this is the type of solution that we bring,” Nobel said. “We are extremely great at what we do."

But neither he nor the state agency that hired MTX Group on Friday would reveal the subcontractors involved in the project. Nobel also wouldn’t say how much the tracers are being paid, calling it proprietary information.

Questions are being raised about previous work the firm did in Kentucky.

And lawmakers, including Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, continue to say they’re dismayed by the agency’s hastily awarded contract.

“We should have been in the loop and we should have known. We should have been able to ask questions,” Patrick told supporters during a tele-town hall Thursday.

A spokesman for the Department of State Health Services, however, said the agency is happy with the company’s performance so far, which also involved launching a virtual call center.

Contact tracing is a major piece of Gov. Greg Abbott’s strategy to contain COVID-19 as businesses begin to reopen. The goal is to track down Texans who may have been exposed to the virus and urge them to self-quarantine to help stop the spread. But the state doesn’t know if it’s meeting its own target.

On Friday, Department of State Health Services spokesman Chris Van Deusen could not say whether every positive case in Texas is being traced by state, local, university, nonprofit or MTX employees. Department commissioner John Hellerstedt said on May 18 the state was not able to keep up.

Some 290 of the tracers hired by MTX are already working and the rest will complete training Friday, Van Deusen said.

The company’s contact tracing workforce is based entirely in Texas and MTX is heavily recruiting university students, Nobel said.

But the only hiring partner he named is NPower, a national nonprofit that provides tuition-free technology training for military veterans and their spouses. It has a state branch in Frisco, where Nobel and his wife Nipa moved 15 months ago, from New York state. Nipa is on the group's Texas advisory board.

Russ Medina, executive director of NPower Texas, though, said in an email that his agency has not yet hired any contact tracers for the Texas effort. “We met MTX in May 2019,” Medina said of the Nobels. “They liked the NPower Texas mission and volunteered to help us. MTX has generously contributed to NPower.” Medina did not offer specifics, other than to say “MTX has participated generously” in two recent fundraisers and via North Texas Cares, a COVID-19 effort led by United Way and area foundations.

“MTX recognizes this skillset and indicated they will use this talent pipeline of veterans and military spouses,” Medina said of NPower. “This process is early.”

On Tuesday, MTX Group’s Frisco offices were the site of a protest organized by Texans Against Contact Tracing. Event organizer Grant Bynum said that the group worries the Abbott administration’s partially privatized approach has “potential for unfettered and unregulated sharing of information with multiple state agencies and local counties.”

A Salesforce ‘Marriage’

MTX Group’s early accomplishments include ramping up a Salesforce-based system for outbound telephone calls, Van Deusen said.

It has been able to “marry up” the calling software with the Texas Health Trace system, he noted. That system was built for the state in the past two months by British-based Deloitte, also using a Salesforce IT platform, Van Deusen said. It provides a way for contact tracers to document their findings.

MTX Group also developed a “learning management system” for newly hired tracers, which includes training on IT systems and a federal health information privacy law. Through Texas Health Trace, the state will collect data from all 4,000 tracers being deployed in Texas by public and private entities, Van Deusen said. MTX Group will provide scheduling, he said, for the 1,450 tracers now on board in “the centralized state effort” -- those hired by MTX, two state agencies and Texas A&M University.

Asked if the state is pleased with MTX Group’s initial work, Van Deusen replied, “We are satisfied. They’ve been working really quickly. They got the calling solutions stood up in a matter of days, over a weekend. They have been to this point very good partners. Really no concerns about the work they’ve done.”

Earlier this month, MTX Group won the contract over 10 other bidders, including major corporations such as IBM, Accenture and AT&T, prompting an outcry by some lawmakers that MTX lacked experience to handle so big a job.

Kentucky Problem

Nobel declined to discuss in detail cost overruns that have plagued a project that MTX Group was hired by the state of Kentucky to perform last summer.

In late January, MTX Group proposed that the Kentucky Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control pay it $2.9 million, a 123 percent increase over its original bid, according to records obtained by The News. The project involved using SalesForce software for many aspects of the agency’s licensing and regulatory process.

Asked about the Kentucky project, Nobel replied, “Any consulting organization will tell you that you don't necessarily always get the estimate exactly where it needs to be.”

However, he insisted that his company has a great track record.

“MTX to date has zero failed projects,” Nobel said. “In the past several years, we have delivered over 400-plus projects for the state [or] local agencies.”

MTX Group is rapidly growing, and still learning, he said.

“As we continue to work through our projects, we always go through post mortem process as needed, right?” he said. “And continue to learn how do we get better at estimating. But do know that we always focus on doing the right thing.”

Nobel said the company has more than 270 employees and a “significant portion” are based in the U.S. “We maintain a good balance in the way we build our team here and globally.”

Several top-level MTX executives have left the company within the past year, including two chief revenue officers and two chief operating officers, according to their LinkedIn profiles.

Nobel said the company has 1 percent attrition in the organization and declined to discuss the departure of several top-level employees. “It is not uncommon for people to come in and move around the organization.”

©2020 The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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