State watchdog looking into no-bid contract awarded by Walz administration for COVID tests
The state’s top watchdog has told the Star Tribune the agency is looking into the fees charged by a New York company awarded a no-bid contract by the Walz administration to administer thousands of COVID tests daily in Minnesota.
Minnesota public health officials talk with pride of the free statewide COVID-19 testing system they set up last year, but questions are mounting about the cost of the no-bid contract they negotiated and a key pricing amendment still in the works.
The Minnesota Legislative Auditor’s Office confirmed Friday that it has received multiple complaints about the rates billed to the state for COVID testing and is conducting “preliminary inquiries” into the issue, said Joel Alter, director of special reviews for the office. Minnesota’s contract is with Vault Medical Services of New York, which runs community testing clinics and communicates the results of about 9,700 COVID-19 diagnostic tests daily to the state and its residents.
Minnesota’s contract is with Vault Medical Services of New York, which runs community testing clinics and communicates the results of about 9,700 COVID-19 diagnostic tests daily to the state and its residents. The contract also includes Infinity Biologix (IBX) of New Jersey, which runs the lab in Oakdale where saliva specimens are processed.
No-bid contracts are allowed under the emergency powers Gov. Walz has repeatedly extended during the pandemic. But a key state senate lawmaker raised concerns about the terms.
Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake,, said she’s asked the Minnesota Legislative Auditor’s Office to investigate the deal between the state, IBX and Vault. Her concerns include whether the prices are too high and whether the contract gives Minnesota enough oversight and auditing power.
Apparently several loose ends have yet to be tied up months after Vault Medical got the deal.
The state’s contract with Vault was struck last October without competitive bidding, which is legal in an official emergency. A key page of the agreement, which defines budgets and caps spending for tests through September 2021, is still labeled “TBD” — to be determined.
State Department of Health officials hope to finalize that contract amendment this month. They’re also working to finalize a deal that would allow other state agencies to buy testing services from Vault. Yet another agreement being negotiated would define Vault’s role at mass-vaccination sites.
State health department officials concede opening up the process for competitive bids might lower costs, but claim they don’t have that luxury in a pandemic.
Huff acknowledged that competitive bids might give state officials leverage to pressure Vault and IBX to adjust their pricing, but he said that would also slow things down while the virus continues to spread.
“The bid process is very time consuming and very resource-intensive,” Huff said. “The reason we don’t have to go out for bids is because we are in an emergency.”
Meantime, there’s no indication the legislative auditor’s preliminary probe includes questions raised previously by First District Cong. Jim Hagedorn, R-MN over Vault Medical’s reported employment of three former DFL operatives, including his two-time opponent Dan Feehan, along with Feehan’s campaign manager and Gov. Walz’s former assistant chief of staff.