• The Star Staff

Firm running Coronavirus database refuses to answer senators’ questions


By Sheryl Gay Stolberg


The health care technology firm that is helping to manage the Trump administration’s new coronavirus database has refused to answer questions from Senate Democrats about its $10.2 million contract, citing a nondisclosure agreement it signed with the Department of Health and Human Services.


In a letter dated Aug. 3 and obtained Friday by The New York Times, a lawyer for Pittsburgh-based TeleTracking Technologies cited the nondisclosure agreement in declining to say how it collects and shares data. The lawyer refused to share the company’s proposal to the government, its communications with administration officials and other information related to the awarding of the contract.


That contract has come under scrutiny in the wake of an abrupt decision last month by Alex Azar, the health and human services secretary, who ordered hospitals to stop reporting coronavirus patient data to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and instead send the information to TeleTracking for inclusion in a centralized coronavirus database. The order raised alarms about data transparency and the sidelining of CDC experts.


Later Friday, the Department of Health and Human Services official in charge of the new database, José Arrieta, abruptly resigned after only 16 months on the job, according to a report in the Federal News Network. On a conference call with reporters last month, Arrieta, the agency’s chief information officer, defended the TeleTracking contract, saying he envisioned it as a “central way to make data visible to first responders at the federal, state and local” levels. He also said the department was considering giving Congress access to the database.


“We have been transparent with data and pushed boundaries,” the Federal News Network quoted him as saying on Friday.


But that pledge for transparency seems at odds with the nondisclosure agreement. Jessica Tillipman, an assistant dean at George Washington University Law School who teaches about government contracts and anticorruption, said Friday that such agreements with government vendors were unusual.


“One of the cornerstones of the federal procurement system is transparency, so it strikes me as odd,” she said.


The government uses the data to help track the pandemic and make crucial decisions about how to allocate scarce supplies, like ventilators and the drug remdesivir, which is used to treat hospitalized COVID-19 patients. HHS officials have said the switch was necessary to speed up reporting and improve accuracy.


But the abrupt change — hospitals were given several days’ notice — has generated an outcry among public health experts and outside advisers to the health and human services agency, who say that the new system is burdening hospitals and endangering scientific integrity.


And one month into the new arrangement, there are questions about how useful the new database is. The COVID Tracking Project, a heavily used resource, reported this week that the federal data are “unreliable.” In comparing hospitalization data reported by the state and federal governments, the project has found large discrepancies in certain states.


“We felt like we had a very solid baseline current hospitalization number, and then after the switch-over, for reasons that remain somewhat obscure to us, we suddenly saw numbers jumping around in totally different ways,” Alexis Madrigal, the project’s co-founder, said in an interview.


The letter made public Friday was in response to an inquiry from Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, and Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Health Committee. They wrote the company on July 22, seeking information about its arrangement with the Health and Human Services Department — “a sudden and significant departure,” they wrote, “from the way the federal government has collected public health data regarding infectious diseases in the past.”


Washington lawyer A. Scott Bolden replied on behalf of Michael Zamagias, a Pittsburgh real estate developer who is TeleTracking’s chairman and majority owner. Bolden suggested the Democrats direct questions about the contract to the government, and a health department spokeswoman said Friday that that was what members of Congress should do, adding that the agency was working to provide such information.


Murray sent a letter seeking information about the contract to the health and human services agency June 3, not quite two months after the contract was awarded, and has received no response, her office said. At the time, hospitals had the option of reporting either to TeleTracking or the CDC, and Murray’s letter asked why the government was creating “a seemingly duplicative data collection system.”


Schumer and Murray have been pushing the government to be more transparent about its collection and use of coronavirus data. The two recently introduced legislation aimed at protecting data transparency, and Schumer has raised the issue with Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, according to a person familiar with their discussion.


“The Trump administration’s decision to hire a private vendor and then cloak that vendor in a nondisclosure agreement raises numerous questions about their motivations and risks the ability of our public health experts to understand and effectively fight this virus,” Schumer said Friday in a statement.


The manner in which the contract was awarded has also generated confusion. A government website initially listed it as a “sole source” contract, but health department officials later said there were six bidders, although they would not name the others, saying they were “prohibited from sharing that information by federal regulations and statutes.”


Tillipman said keeping the names of bidders a secret is also unusual.

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