Privatizing pandemic data? Bizarre no-bid contract raises questions

Seemed odd when “Covid Czar” Mike Pence announced on July 14 that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) would no longer collect pandemic data. Researchers and policy-makers rely on the CDC for critical pandemic information, but now they’re shut out, and the public is shut out with them. This is deeply troubling as the Trump Administration has politicized almost every aspect of the Covid pandemic.

The Department of Health and Human Services quietly awarded a $10 million no-bid contract to an obscure bed-tracking company called TeleTracking which will duplicate work the CDC has always done. The contract was awarded on April 9, but news of the change wasn’t widely reported for three months, on July 14. Two anonymous CDC officials quoted by the New York Times said the CDC was “shocked” by the news. An HHS spokesman claimed in the article that the CDC’s system was “inadequate,” and promised they would eventually have access to pandemic data, but “they would simply no longer control it.”

I believe the change raises serious questions about the administration’s handling of our pandemic response, and points to possible underhandedness in government contracting.

Treating hospital beds like airplane seats, bed-tracking utilizes software to to maximize hospital profits. The practice is not designed to provide public health data or improve patient care, regardless of industry marketing verbiage to the contrary. Bed-tracking enables CEOs to see their revenue in real time. It’s not meant to track pandemics.

Over previous 11 years, Pittsburgh-based TeleTracking was awarded US government contracts totaling less than $600,000. Their contracts were for licensing and/or leasing bed-tracking software to Veterans Administration hospitals. So, how were they picked to be the sole keeper of America’s entire pandemic data portfolio? To answer this you’ll need to know about TeleTracking’s executive team.

TeleTracking’s CEO Michael Zamangias is a Republican donor and Pennsylvania real estate developer turned oil and gas developer. Zamangias has reported contributions to a rogues gallery of ethically-challenged conservatives: Rick Santorum, Roy Blunt, Dick Thornburgh, and Arlen Spector. Zamangias also maintains a real estate development company which touts his bed-tracking business as its “sister” organization and lists one executive in common with TeleTracking: Executive Vice President for Corporate Development Mike Caffrey, who works in the same capacity for both companies.

Caffrey graduated from Dartmouth in 1988 with a degree in economics. By pure coincidence the current Secretary of Health and Human Services, Alex Azar, also graduated Dartmouth in 1988 with a degree in economics (and government). Both were members of Phi Beta Kappa—an elite honor society. HHS Secretary Azar is conspicuously mentioned in TeleTracking PR on their website. Is this ludicrous no-bid contract the result of college chums enriching themselves with public money?

Caffrey’s bio also boasts that he spent “extensive time in some of the least developed countries in the world—leading electric power development and privatization,” for employer Price Waterhouse.

Moving our country’s pandemic data from CDC to TeleTracking raised the ire of Washington Senator Patty Murray, top Democrat on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions. On June 3 Sen. Murray sent a strongly worded letter to the US Department of Health and Human Services demanding answers. From the letter Murray writes, “While… critical data remain out of reach of communities, scientists, and policymakers, it appears the establishment of the TeleTracking system—at significant cost—duplicates the collection of data that was already being reported.”

As we’re asked to “trust the system” and send our children back to school, Americans are being kept in the dark about key aspects of the pandemic.

Sen. Patty Murray continues: Critical data remain out of reach to communities working to mitigate the pandemic and planning their response…four months after COVID-19 arrived on U.S. shores, there still is no clear reporting on how many tests and supplies are available, what production and manufacturing gaps remain, and what specific steps are being taken to address shortfalls.”

Providing public service is wholly outside TeleTracking’s wheelhouse, but it’s the scope of this mission that should really give us pause. Teletracking’s history of government contracting is limited to mainly leasing software to a handful of VA hospitals. Their work history is nowhere near comparable to handling the entire nation’s data on a deadly pandemic.

The White House says they’re “streamlining data gathering,” but what they’re actually doing is politicizing science and laundering our pandemic data. Would anyone be surprised if they put our data behind a paywall, monetizing critical public health information?

The only indication that the public will have access to the new data system was pledged via “a verbal discussion” whereby hospitals might have access to it. At a time when this administration has shown every indication to lie to the public about the pandemic, we’re supposed to believe the Trump Administration won’t fudge the numbers, monetize our data, or refuse access to it altogether?

And, according to reporting in the New York Times none of this is actually resulting in “streamlined” data collection. Both CDC and TeleTracking methods for reporting require hospital employees to manually enter data rather than “the government tapping into an electronic system to obtain the information.” According to officials the TeleTracking system will “assist the White House coronavirus task for in allocating scarce supplies like protective gear and Remdesivir,” which is an expensive new antiviral drug (cost approx $4,000) that according to The Lancet, is proving less effective than older, generic antivirals stacked with interferon-b1 which is used to treat recurring multiple sclerosis/MS.

For what it’s worth, the NYT quoted Dr. Dan Handling Vice President at In-Q-Tel (investment arm of the CIA), who expressed concern that these old approaches to data management are inadequate. We should instead be investing in technology used for “forecasting, identifying, detecting, tracking and reporting on emerging diseases. I think this says more about the lens through which NYT reports this story (national security) than it does about the value of chucking $10,000,000 to TeleTracking.

TeleTracking’s core competency is maximizing profit for hospital administrators. They have no experience in public health, epidemiology, or data transparency.

The Trump Administration’s sudden $10 million dollar shift to TeleTracking was the result of a “tense conference call” between hospital executives and White House Covid response coordinator D. Deborah Birx. In the call Birx complained to the executives that hospitals were not reporting their data in a timely fashion. Their solution was to create an entirely new data reporting mechanism which doesn’t solve the problem at all.

Curiously, the NYT asked a client of TeleTracking to comment on the new contract. The Rush University Medical Center in Chicago is listed on TeleTracking’s “news” page where press releases are housed, as a happy TeleTracking customer, and that’s exactly what they told the NYTs, enthusing that TeleTracking can “seamlessly move patients from a full hospital to one with available beds.”

The spokesman-by-proxy for TeleTracking, and chief analytics officer for RUMCC then complained bitterly that their hospital had four “full-time employees” who collected more than 100 different (data) measures. Rush Medical Center in Chicago is one of the nation’s leading hospitals with more than 10,000 employees, and they’re ticked off because they were being asked for accountability and transparency.

Are we to believe that there’s no longer a need to report these stats for federal programs? The article doesn’t say. Instead they’re focused on those dang beds and how much they can charge for them.

That seems a far cry from providing the full spectrum of medical information needed to fight a pandemic. For instance, in her strongly worded letter Sen. Murray asks how TeleTracking would report their findings around “antimicrobial resistance, sepsis, and other critical infections that occur in inpatient settings.” Good question. Other important questions to be answered:

  • How will researchers and policy officials access to this information?
  • Is our data being monetized behind a paywall?
  • Is data collected in a scientifically-relevant manner—or are they simply maximizing profits for healthcare companies?
  • How will our personal health data be protected?
  • How do we know TeleTracking isn’t selling our information to drug companies or employers who could conceivably layoff those who have been infected?

On the same day that Sen. Patty Murray issued her letter to HHS, TeleTracking President Chris Johnson told the Pittsburgh Technology Council’s Business as Usual daily radio show that he believes “in the next two years, you will see … government leaders (such as) the Departments of Health and Human Services, the VA, the DOD, and our intelligence community will be demanding sensitivity and visibility into the utilization of resources—beyond what exists today.” Of course they will.

The CDC public data site went dark as HHS spokesman under Secretary Azar said, “the new, faster and complete data system is what our nation needs to defeat the virus.” He said the only difference now is that CDC simply “no longer has control” of the data. But none of that is true. If CDC doesn’t have control of the data for distribution to the public, then the public doesn’t have data either. This isn’t a newer data system. It’s an old data system. This system does nothing to ‘defeat the virus.’ It’s designed to make profits. It’s duplicative and it hides information from the public, researchers, and policy-makers.

The NYT article quotes former assistant secretary for preparedness and response under President Obama, Dr Nicole Laurie, who said we’re essentially centralizing our pandemic data under an “inherently political apparatus.”

The question goes beyond whether the Trump Administration is trying to “politicize” pandemic data. We need to ask if they’re monetizing it and laundering it as well.

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