The head of Michigan’s health department acknowledged it was a mistake to award a no-bid contract to a Democratic-connected firm to perform contact tracing in an effort to combat the spread of the coronavirus.
“We made a mistake here, one that I regret,” Robert Gordon, director of the Department of Health and Human Services, told lawmakers Thursday morning during a nearly two-hour hearing.
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Gordon noted the contract with a political consulting company was canceled at the direction of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer before the vendor was paid any money. He said there is “zero evidence” the state employees who negotiated the contract had political motivations in choosing this vendor.
“The only goal in contacting this firm and working with them was to do the work quickly and well,” Gordon said.
“The staff involved involved were not political animals and did not have the political experience to know the platform in use was also used for political campaigns.”
The department continues to work with local health departments on contact tracing efforts.
“We have ramped it up dramatically from where it was in the period we were talking about,” Gordon told lawmakers, referring to the March time frame when the controversial contract was awarded.
“And we continue to work hard to ramp it up, working with local health departments.”
The company was hired to conduct calls and provide software for contact tracing, a process deemed crucial by health experts that involves reaching out to people with confirmed cases of COVID-19 — the disease caused by the coronavirus — in an effort to determine others who may have the disease.
The company hired, K2K Consulting, operates under several additional names in Michigan. In this case, the company subcontracted this work to an entity it essentially owns, Great Lakes Community Engagement. This company uses a platform created by Every Action VAN, which has ties to a national company that routinely uses similar services to raise money for Democratic political candidates. Past clients include Whitmer and U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Michigan.
The director repeatedly said he and his staff were working long hours and were under incredible pressure to combat the “terrifying surge” of the virus at the time the contract was awarded.
“I can’t tell you the number of hours that these people work, and continue to work right now, day after day after day, trying to address a pandemic of extraordinary scope,” Gordon told lawmakers.
“I am tremendously proud and honored to work alongside these folks.”
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Gordon said before this contract was awarded in April, the department had planned to use more than 2,000 volunteers to conduct contact tracing. However, given the rate of the spread of the disease, Gordon said the department realized the state needed a professional organization to conduct the tracing.
The contract and subsequent cancellation prompted an inquiry by the Michigan Office of the Auditor General. In a July letter to state Rep. Ann Bollin, R-Brighton Township, the auditor answered several questions about the contractors involved and how the contract was awarded.
However, the auditor general report notes that a key individual involved in awarding the contract referred all questions to a private attorney. The attorney for Andrea Taverna, the department’s senior advisor on opioid strategy and the person in charge of contact tracing, said Taverna would not answer questions.
The auditor noted the original contract amount was roughly $200,000. The new contract, eventually awarded through a more traditional bid process, was for roughly $1 million. Gordon said his department does not frequently award contracts without a bid, but the department determined the vendor’s capabilities were specialized enough — and the need for contract tracing so dire — to award the contract without seeking bids from other vendors.
In the past, the governor said the health department made a mistake in the way it chose the vendor.
“I don’t know what that reason was, but I do know that the Department of Health and Human Services doesn’t have a political bone in their theoretical body. They moved forward with this vendor, but they should have gone through the (State Emergency Operations Center), which is the clearinghouse for all of this work,” Whitmer said.
“This was an unnecessary distraction and I think leadership is about solving problems, the correct process was not followed.”
Gordon told lawmakers current contact tracing efforts are vital to helping prevent a surge of the disease as students return to school and ahead of winter’s arrival, two factors that are expected to exacerbate the spread of the coronavirus.
As of Wednesday, in Michigan there were 89,271 confirmed COVID-19 cases and at least 6,273 deaths related to the disease since March.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan health director: We ‘made a mistake’ awarding controversial contract