The Trump administration has renewed a controversial contract with a Pittsburgh company to collect key COVID-19 data from hospitals.
The Department of Health and Human Services decided to award a second $10.2 million, six-month contract to TeleTracking Technologies even though Congressional committees are investigating the process by which the contract was awarded and the HHS Inspector General is looking at how the company is securing the information it is gathering, an NPR Investigation has learned.
Back in the Spring, TeleTracking was awarded a contract to collect COVID-19 data from the nation's hospitals despite no previous experience working on this sort of data collection. And TeleTracking's system has been plagued by errors and inconsistencies from the outset.
The unusual process by which HHS gave TeleTracking the work has drawn the interest of government investigators. The HHS Inspector General's office is investigating whether TeleTracking included "adequate cybersecurity controls" to protect confidential data, according to HHS OIG spokeswoman Tesia Williams. The Federal Register is also soliciting comments on behalf of HHS about the burden placed on hospitals who are required to submit their COVID data through Teletracking as opposed to the CDC system.
When asked about the contract's renewal, an HHS spokesperson said the original $10.2 million contract included an option for a six-month extension. "The federal government is still actively responding to this pandemic and this data is necessary to the response," said HHS spokesperson Katherine McKeogh.
The contract has been at the center of a controversy over the administration's decision to move the collection of key COVID-19 hospital data out of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, amid reports that health information related to the pandemic had been politicized by the White House. The CDC has tracked infection information for a range of illnesses for years.
Questions still loom about the way HHS awarded the original contract last spring. The Department originally said the contract was awarded with a no-bid process and then reversed itself and said it was competitively bid. It has refused to reveal which other companies bid for the job and an NPR investigation has been unable to find any companies that knew the contract existed.
And, NPR has learned, key officials inside the office of HHS Secretary Alex Azar fast-tracked the TeleTracking contract.
The company told NPR that it sent a TeleTracking demonstration to the office for the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response at HHS on March 23 or 24 and presented its product, via conference call, to ASPR officials on March 27.
Sources tell NPR that Deputy Assistant Secretary for ASPR, Bryan Shuy, began showing off a TeleTracking demonstration he had on his phone in late March, and that the company was invited to present its product to HHS officials just days later. Contemporaneous documentation obtained by NPR showed Shuy telling people that the contract had been awarded just three days later. HHS declined to make Shuy available for comment.
When given a list of questions about the way the contract was awarded, HHS Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Michael Caputo told NPR, before taking a leave of absence from the agency last month, that its reporting was "false and defamatory" and threatened legal action. He declined to be more specific.
"I was surprised to see that TeleTracking was the company that was pulling that data together," said Angie Franks, CEO of Central Logic, which provides technology for hospital systems. "There are other companies that pull data together and this is not what I know of what TeleTracking does. So it was not really surprising to see that it was, maybe not working as effectively as anticipated."
TeleTracking's new contract is up for renewal at the end of March.