The governor has the responsibility to respond to the serious questions arising from contracts signed with companies without experience in medical supplies, but with political ties, to buy COVID-19 rapid testing kits that were to be sold to Puerto Rico overpriced and without the U.S. government approval.
A clear lack of controls facilitated that the National Emergency Management and Disaster Administration (NMEAD), signed an agreement with a firm without experience in COVID-19 testing kits for a total of $38 million. This was approved by the Department of Health. In a similarly unusual fashion, the contractor received $19 million in advance. The company indicated that it has reimbursed that amount following a request by Health Secretary Lorenzo González. It is necessary to verify that this last transaction was completed.
Faced with the legitimate question of whether or not she knew of such an enormous transaction, the governor placed the responsibility on the officials who were then in charge of the Health Department.
The enormous and unprecedented health crisis demands that the government takes urgent action to fully address the challenges that the pandemic has posed to our island and the world.
Puerto Rico is going through a difficult economic situation that demands strong oversight to disburse $38 million, especially when the transaction involved the supply of urgent and essential COVID-19 rapid testing kits. It does call the attention that this process has not been properly conducted towards the higher levels of La Fortaleza.
The government, which has rightly anticipated a set of measures promoting social distancing and the creation of a Task Force including renowned health professionals, now comes before public scrutiny for a transaction that violates the principles of a sound administration.
There must be accountability for the processes that Health officials used to approve the contract with Apex General Contractors. It is necessary to clarify whether or not Health investigated the company that before this agreement dedicated to construction and air-conditioning services.
How is it possible that no public official warned about such transactions involving at least two agencies?
Testing is essential to determine the spread of the virus. It is a key component of the response to the pandemic, which the governor herself is leading.
The new Health Secretary, González, acting effectively and promptly, canceled those scandalous contracts, stating that no one can play with the pain of the people who are struggling to overcome the deadly threat of the coronavirus.
For too long, we have been victims of demoralizing corruption episodes resulting from cronyism and political opportunism. This time, the moment could not be less unfortunate as we suffer the uncertainty about the local level of the spread of a virus that has caused thousands of deaths and paralyzed social and economic activities throughout the planet. By press time, 21 people had died in Puerto Rico and more than 500 were infected. And testing was still limited.
The Health Department canceled the purchase order for testing kits because the company failed to meet the delivery date. At the time they signed the agreement, those kits were not approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
The Oversight Board warned the Governor that contracts with Apex General Contractors LLC and 313 LLC for the purchase of rapid testing kits could be illegal. Therefore, the entity requested to cancel them.
Contractual opportunism is a plague that has historically impacted Puerto Rico and must be eliminated. The hiring of companies without expertise in the field of medical equipment to provide COVID-19 testing kits shows deficiencies in efforts against the spread.
Identifying responsibilities and adopting clear policies for purchase processes can bring the confidence necessary for an island overwhelmed by uncertainty and a serious fiscal crisis worsened by extreme natural events since 2017.