State requested $340M in emergency contracts with little oversight | News, Sports, Jobs

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HARRISBURG — Lawmakers this week will probe whether state agencies had too much leeway in securing emergency contracts during the pandemic, following controversy over a data breach with a vendor hired to administer Pennsylvania’s contact tracing program.

Rep. Jason Ortitay (R., Allegheny) on Tuesday will lead a House hearing to investigate the emergency procurement process, which allows state agencies to bypass competitive public bidding to acquire what they say are urgently needed supplies or services.

Between 2015 and 2019, Pennsylvania agencies made on average 135 emergency procurement requests each year, a Spotlight PA review of state data obtained through a Right-to-Know request shows. But in 2020, requests increased to 483, with about half explicitly for COVID-19 response. Only 15 were denied.

The estimated costs attached to those requests totaled more than $340 million last year — up from an annual average of $81 million.

“It’s not a very transparent process,” Ortitay said.

Separately, the Senate committees on Communications and Technology, as well as Health and Human Services, will question top health department officials about why they are rushing another contact tracing program agreement after the state fired the last company for a data breach.

The Department of Health used the emergency procurement process to hire Insight Global in July 2020 to administer the contact tracing program and conduct outreach to people possibly exposed to COVID-19 in an effort to prevent outbreaks. The company’s initial $22.9 million award grew to $57.8 million by March, state Treasury Department records show.

The health department fired the company in May this year after a security lapse exposed the personal information of about 72,000 people.

Both hearings were prompted by a Spotlight PA report this month that found the health department is using the same emergency process to pursue a $34 million agreement with Public Consulting Group, LLC, to take over the program. Health department officials justified the request by stating that the need for contact tracing is still urgent. Lawmakers holding the hearings this week are not yet convinced.

“We’re grateful that Acting Secretary [Alison] Beam has agreed to testify at this hearing,” said Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill (R., York), who chairs the Communications and Technology Committee.

“We have a lot of questions as to the cost, the selection, and the merit of this contract, along with many concerns over personal health care information, and protecting and safeguarding the privacy of Pennsylvanians,” she said.

Gov. Tom Wolf’s office defended the process and in a statement described oversight as “thorough, comprehensive, and transparent,” but did not elaborate on what checks are in place to make sure purchases are vetted thoroughly.

In a statement, a health department spokesperson said officials “look forward to fully participating in the hearings.”

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