What are taxpayers spending on these “free” Covid tests? The government will say nothing. – Denver Post

The four free rapid covid-19 tests that President Joe Biden promised in December for every American household have started arriving in mailboxes and on doorsteps in earnest.

A spike in covid infections spurred high demand for over-the-counter antigen tests over the holidays: clinics were overwhelmed with people looking for tests and the few standard brands were nearly impossible to find in pharmacies or even online. online through Amazon. Prices for certain tests kits broke the hundred dollar mark. And the government has promised its purchase could deliver the tests faster and more cheaply so people, by simply dabbing at home, can stifle the spread of covid.

The Ministry of Defense organized the tender and announced in mid-Januaryafter a limited competitive process, three companies were awarded contracts totaling nearly $2 billion for 380 million over-the-counter antigen tests, all to be delivered by March 14.

The much-vaunted purchase was the latest installment of billions of dollars in government spending in response to the pandemic. How much does the government pay for each test? And what were the terms of the agreements? The government will not say yet, although by law this information should be available.

The cost – and, more importantly, the price per test – would help demonstrate who is getting the best deal of protection in these times of covid: the consumer or the business.

Reluctance to share pricing details goes against basic notions of cost control and accountability – and this is just a quote from a long-serving position at the Ministry of Justice. “The prices of government contracts should not be secret,” according to its website. “Government contracts are ‘public contracts’ and taxpayers have a right to know, with very few exceptions, what the government has agreed to buy and at what price. »

Americans often pay significantly more than people in other developed countries for tests, drugs and medical devices, and the pandemic has accentuated these differences. Governments abroad had been purchasing rapid tests in bulk for more than a year, and many national health departments were distributing free or low-cost tests, for less than $1, to their residents. In the United States, retailers, businesses, schools, hospitals and everyday shoppers were competing months later to buy swabs in hopes of getting back to normal. The retail price has gone up to $25 for a single test at some pharmacies; stories abounded of businesses and wealthy clients racking up tests for work or vacation.

US contracts valued at $10,000 or more must be regularly displayed on sam.gov Where the Federal Procurement Data System, known as fpds.gov. But none of the three new rapid test contracts – awarded to iHealth Labs of California, Roche Diagnostics Corp. from Indiana and Abbott Rapid Dx North America from Florida – could not be found in online databases.

“We don’t know why this data is not appearing in the FPDS database, as it should be visible and searchable. Army Contracts Command is reviewing the issue and working to resolve it as quickly as possible,” spokeswoman Jessica R. Maxwell said in an email in January. This month it declined to provide more information about the contracts and referred all questions about pricing to the Department of Health and Human Services.

Only vague information is available in DOD press releases, dated January 13 and 14, which note global awards in fixed-price contracts: iHealth Labs for $1.275 billion, Roche Diagnostics for $340 million, and Abbott Rapid Dx North America for $306 million. There were no specifics regarding contractual standards or performance terms – including the number of test kits that would be provided by each company.

Without knowing the price or the number of tests each company agreed to provide, it is impossible to determine whether the US government overpaid or to calculate whether more tests could have been provided more quickly. As variants of the deadly virus continue to emerge, it is unclear whether the government will renew these contracts and under what terms.

Submit an offer to fill an “urgent” national need, companies had to provide answers to the Department of Defense by December 24 on their ability to scale up manufacturing to produce 500,000 or more tests per week in three months. Among the questions: had a company already obtained an “emergency use authorization” for the test kits, and did a company have “fully manufactured unallocated stock to ship within two weeks of allocation of the contract ?

Based on responses from about 60 companies, the Defense Department said it sent “requests for proposals” directly to manufacturers. About twenty companies submitted a bid. Defense would not disclose the names of the companies involved.

Emails to the three companies chosen to query the terms of the contracts went unanswered from iHealth and Abbott. Roche spokeswoman Michelle A. Johnson responded in an email that she was “unable to provide you with this information.” We do not share customer contract information. The customers – listed as the Department of Defense and the Army Command – did not provide answers on the terms of the contract.

The Alabama-based Army Contracts Command could initially not be reached for questions. An email address on the media order’s website has bounced back as outdated. By the end of January, six phone numbers listed on the command’s website for public information were dead. At the command protocol office, the person who answered the phone at the end of January referred all questions to the offices of Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.

“Unfortunately, there is a problem with voicemail,” said Ralph Williams, a representative from the protocol office. “Voicemail is down. I mean, voicemail has been down for months.

Asked about the bounced email traffic, Williams said he was surprised the address – [email protected] – was listed on the CCA website. “I don’t know when this email was last used,” he said. “The military stopped using the email address about eight years ago.”

Williams provided a direct phone number for Aberdeen and apologized for the confusion. “People should have their phone tracked,” he said. “But I can only do what I can do.”

Joyce Cobb, spokeswoman for Army Contracting Command-Aberdeen Proving Ground, reached by phone and email, referred all questions to Defense staff. Maxwell referred more detailed questions about the contracts to HHS, and emails to HHS went unanswered.

Defense and Army spokespersons after several emails said the contracts should be reviewed, citing the Freedom of Information Act that protects privacy, before they are released. Neither explained how knowing the price per test could be a privacy or proprietary concern.

A defense spokesman added that the contracts had been accelerated “due to the urgent and compelling need” for antigen testing. Defense obtained “approval from the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics, and Technology to contract without providing for full and open competition.”

KHN separately researched the contracts on the sam.gov website during a phone call with a government official who assisted in the research. During an extended phone session, the representative called a supervisor. Neither could locate the contracts, which are updated twice a week. The representative questioned whether the numbers given in the Defense press release were wrong and offered, “You might want to check that out.”

On Jan. 25, Defense Spokesman Maxwell, in an email, said Army Contracts Command “is working to prepare these contracts for public release and part of that includes proactively preparing contracts for writing FOIA”. Three days later, she sent an email stating that “under the limited competition authority…the DOD was not required to make the request for proposal (RFP) available to the public.”

Maxwell did not respond when KHN pointed out that the contractual provision she cited does not prohibit the disclosure of such information. In a Feb. 2 email, Maxwell said “we have nothing more to provide at this time.”

On sam.gov, the covid spreadsheets include a disclaimer that “due to the tempo of operations” in the pandemic response, the database only shows “some of the work that has been awarded to date”.

In other words, it could not guarantee the timeliness or accuracy of its own database.

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health issues. Along with policy analysis and polling, KHN is one of the three main operating programs of KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed non-profit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.

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