SALT LAKE CITY — Frustrated by certain multimillion-dollar, no-bid purchases and contracts that state officials have executed as part of their response to the COVID-19 pandemic, a pair of lawmakers are drafting legislation to bring more transparency and checks to the state’s emergency procurement powers.
Rep. Andrew Stoddard, D-Sandy, and Rep. Suzanne Harrison, D-Draper, are preparing their own bills meant to bring more accountability and constraints to the state’s emergency purchasing powers, which allowed state officials to spend over $108 million on COVID-19 buys and contracts in less than three months, untethered by usual competitive bidding requirements.
“We want our government to be nimble and responsive. We also want accountability for how taxpayer dollars are being spent and transparency in the decision-making process,” Harrison said. “Taxpayers deserve wherever possible a competitive bidding process and knowing that we’re getting the best product and value, not just profiteering at taxpayer expense.”
The purchase that has raised the most ire, and was later refunded amid outcry, was an $800,000 order of hydroxychloroquine from Utah pharmacy Meds in Motion, which spent about $1 million amassing a stockpile of the drug. The Governor’s Office of Management and Budget green-lighted the purchase as state health department bosses — despite pushback from Utah’s own state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn — were poised to sign a separate standing order meant to facilitate the distribution of the drugs before the plan was scrapped.
Officials in the governor’s office, which conducted an internal review of the purchase, chalked the transaction up to “breakdowns in communication” between state agencies, but determined that “all acted in good faith.”
The group Alliance for a Better Utah, however, filed a price gouging complaint against Meds in Motion, accusing the pharmacy of charging too much for the 20,000 courses of the anti-malarial drugs, and pharmacists have questioned whether Meds in Motion had the proper license to compound and sell that many doses of the drugs. Dan Richards, owner of Meds in Motion, has defended the deal as fair, legal and in “good faith.”
“Even though the money was refunded, I think there are still so many questions as to why and who,” Stoddard said. “There are a lot of questions that haven’t been answered yet.”