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Audit scrutinizes emergency efforts of state workers to get life-saving PPE

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Posted at 7:10 PM, Jan 26, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-26 19:10:25-05

LANSING, Mich. (WXYZ)  — A new report from the State Auditor General’s Office looks at the protocols in place as Michigan fought the world to get PPE. Did they result in waste or life-saving heroism? It appears to be both.

If you talk to people who work in state procurement, you will learn that, in general, they don’t make instant decisions on their own. They pay meticulous and time-consuming detail to contracts. They most of the time work with known credible vendors.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Michigan, they found themselves on the front line. They were charged with getting life-saving equipment for medical workers during a global pandemic. They found themselves in positions where it appeared they had to take risks to compete.

“It was a very stressful time and they knew that this was life or death,” said Caleb Buhs, Director of Communications in the Department of Technology, Management, and Budget.

Buhs says when the COVID-19 pandemic first hit Michigan, state purchasing workers found themselves searching the globe for PPE around the clock. They soon learned through experience that they needed to act with unprecedented quickness, or someone else would get an order in for the supplies they wanted.

“If at three a.m. they found supplies, they would have to get a supervisor’s approval at three a.m. and move forward with that, because by four a.m. that product would be gone,” said Buhs.

State law requires that the State Auditor General’s Office complete audits of how funds appropriated for COVID-19 are used. A report was just released this month on what it found. The report raised concerns about some policies in place due to the emergency situation.

The state issues procurement cards to workers responsible for purchases made. When the emergency started it allowed workers to share their cards to make emergency purchases.

“The Department of Technology, Management, and Budget (DTMB) did not ensure that individual procurement cards were only assigned to and used by one person when making emergency COVID-19 purchases. Assigned cardholders allowed other employees to use their procurement cards to make emergency purchases of $35.2 million, exposing the State to potential abuse and misuse of State funds,” said the report.

DTMB responded to the criticism saying a limited number of workers have these cards, and they needed to share them to move fast to get supplies in the emergency situation. Each purchase required three levels of approval.

The report also said, “Comprehensive emergency procurement policies and procedures are needed. The Department of Technology, Management, and Budget wired $96.9 million to15 vendors before all goods and services were received, increasing the risk of fraud, waste, and loss of funds.”

The DTMB responded to the concern saying it agrees with the recommendation and will work to implement needed improvements.

Buhs says the state did lose $24,896 to a bad vendor because of the emergency procurement policies. It also says that the loss should be considered in the context of the fact that the state purchased over $250 million of PPE between mid-March and October.

“It is never good to make decisions in a panic,” said Jason Wasserman, an Associate Professor of Medical Ethics at the Oakland University William Beaumont School of Medicine. “And we were collectively in a panic.

Wasserman says that it should be considered that the decisions being made were not just about dollars, but had life and death medical consequences.

“I think what we can learn is we need to be better prepared at the federal, state, and local levels to deal with these kinds of emergencies. We need to have better processes in place. We need to have better pipelines for supplies so we are not making these types of decisions in a panic,” said Wasserman. “I mean, frankly, from the Federal Government on down, when this pandemic struck we had seen our public health infrastructure, our public health preparedness, our policies, our guidelines weren’t in place or had been gutted. This leaves everybody in a lurch. I am as concerned about government waste as anyone else, but I feel I have a fairly high degree of sympathy for people that are trying to scramble and make decisions to get supplies to our front-line workers in such a difficult situation.”

You can read the audit here.

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