HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — Pennsylvania spent more than $634 million in emergency procurements during the pandemic on everything from PPE to contact tracing. Much, if not all of the money, was awarded without the traditional bidding process.
Was it money well spent? Did taxpayers get their money’s worth? Where did the system break down?
The Pennsylvania House State Government Committee took a peek and poked fun at the traditionally dry topic.
“I think of this as a 101 course on emergency procurement,” State Rep. Jason Ortitay (R-Washington/Allegheny) said. “So it should be fun.”
It’s certainly been fun for vendors who got to cash in without bidding, under the cover of health emergency. Why no bid and the traditional competitive process? “We have to move quickly because typically health, security, or property are at risk,” Secretary of the Department of General Services, Curt Topper said.
Topper is the one who approves those emergency contracts and gave a few examples when they may be needed like if a boiler blows up at a state prison in the dead of winter it needs to be replaced immediately. No time for the six-to-eight-week procurement process to vet competing vendors.
He said during the pandemic the state had existing, and cheaper, deals with companies to provide PPE which were then rendered worthless when those vendors couldn’t deliver as demand spiked across the globe. “Which left us in a position where we had to go out on an emergency basis and find masks wherever we could find them,” Topper said.
State Rep. Frank Ryan (R-Lebanon) asked about the Health Department’s no-bid deal with Insight Global to do contact tracing. The company accidentally breached the data of 72,000 Pennsylvanians. Ryan asked if the $28 million emergency contract contributed to a lack of proper vetting. Keara Klinepeter, the PA Health Department’s second-in-command, said no. She believes people, not procurement, is the issue.
“There were individuals that worked for Insight Global that caused the security incident,” Klinepeter said, adding she couldn’t say more because of current litigation.
The Pa. Health Department could potentially spend even more with a new contact tracer. That has Republican lawmakers scratching their heads. “Who is overseeing it (the new contact tracing contract) to make sure they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing?” Ortitay asked. “Because in the case of Insight Global, that wasn’t the case. Nobody had any idea what was going on and I’m not sure anybody was checking up on them to make sure they were abiding by terms of the contract.”
Klinepeter says the highest management at the Department of Health signs off on all contracts and makes sure taxpayers get what they’re paying for. “The way we hold them accountable is the way we would under a normal procurement,” Klinepeter said.
While DGS approves the contracts, Topper says it’s up to each agency that requests the contracts to make sure the goods and services are being delivered. Topper testified hr’s confident there is enough oversight. “The process is as rigorous and transparent as we know how to make it,” Topper said.
For perspective, in a normal year, emergency procurements represent only 3% of all state purchases. During the pandemic, that doubled to 6%. Topper said the numbers are now dropping and he hopes to get back to business as usual in the near future.