State accepts $800k refund for malaria drugs, concludes internal review of purchase

FILE - This Monday, April 6, 2020, file photo shows an arrangement of Hydroxychloroquine pills in Las Vegas. At least 13 states have obtained a total of more than 10 million doses of malaria drugs to treat COVID-19 patients despite warnings from doctors that more tests are needed before the medications that President Trump once fiercely promoted should be used to help people with the coronavirus. (AP Photo/John Locher,File)

The state of Utah will get a full refund for the $800,000 it spent late last month buying malaria drugs that some officials hoped would prove to be an effective treatment for the coronavirus.

The office of Gov. Gary Herbert, who previously said the purchase happened unbeknownst to him, concluded after an internal review that state agencies had acted in good faith — although there were admittedly breakdowns in communication, according to a statement released Wednesday evening.

The state bought 20,000 packages of the malaria drugs, hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine, even though health experts warned of a lack of scientific evidence that they help coronavirus patients battle the disease.

But the governor’s office argued state employees did their best with the information they had at the time.

“In this fast-changing environment, there were promising reports about the role of antiviral medications in treating COVID-19 symptoms,” the statement read. “Although reports of efficacy were mixed, top medical specialists in the state — before this issue became politicized — urged state officials to look seriously at chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine as effective treatment options.”

The drugs have become a polarizing subject after President Donald Trump and conservative television personalities touted it as a possible “game changer” in the pandemic. Meanwhile, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, cautioned against overhyping the unproven medication.

In late March, the Utah Division of State Purchasing and General Service bought the drugs from an in-state pharmacy, Meds in Motion, based on growing concerns about potential medication shortages and weakened supply chains. Utah health officials were also exploring a much larger deal to stockpile 200,000 doses, then distribute the Meds in Motion medication to drug stores statewide.

However, Herbert last week announced the state would not move forward with that massive second purchase, saying he’d been unaware of the first transaction and that he had some questions related to transparency in the decision-making. The internal review initiated by the governor’s office ultimately found no wrongdoing, according to the statement, but did highlight the challenging judgment calls that officials have had to make during the pandemic.

The state received its refund from Meds in Motion on Wednesday afternoon. The pharmacy is planning to donate the medication to charities that “can use it immediately to address a worldwide shortage of anti-malarial medications in developing countries," the statement read.

This wasn’t the only purchase made in short order during the state’s emergency response to the pandemic, the office added. Since March 24, state officials have issued more than 300 purchase orders for about $70 million in supplies under an emergency protocol that allows them to bypass standard procurement processes.

The state has canceled some of those orders, according to the statement, because vendors didn’t deliver, products failed or the state decided it no longer needed them.

“It is easy to sensationalize and second-guess decisions made on the field of battle,” the statement continued. "There is little here to second guess, and the governor is grateful to public and private sector partners, including Meds in Motion, who have acted with dispatch in a good faith effort to save lives.”

The state investigation also determined that Meds in Motion had charged a fair price for the drugs. Earlier this week, Alliance for a Better Utah filed a price gouging complaint that claimed the $800,000 cost to the state was well in excess of the going rate for hydroxychloroquine.

Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, a promoter of the drugs and participant in talks with Meds in Motion, said the state will keep working to find solutions amid the coronavirus.

“I’m hopeful for an effective treatment for COVID-19 to help protect citizens,” he said in a prepared statement Wednesday evening. “I appreciate everyone’s efforts to prepare for various situations during an unprecedented global health crisis.”

Rep. Suzanne Harrison, a physician anesthesiologist and immediate past president of the Salt Lake County Medical Society, said she was encouraged the state had received a refund, adding that she hopes state leaders will listen to medical experts in responding to the current public health crisis.

“We have a depth of experience and expertise in Utah, and we need more voices at decision-making tables to effectively navigate this crisis and best position Utah for the future,” the Draper Democrat said in a statement. “Finally, while we must act nimbly during this pandemic, Utahns deserve transparency, due diligence and open bidding processes when state officials are awarding lucrative contracts.”

Utah House Democrats have been calling for more information about how Meds in Motion received the contract in the first place.

“Utahns were right to be concerned that state leaders would give millions of public dollars to a private company for an unproven treatment during a crisis," they wrote in a letter published by The Salt Lake Tribune. "We still have some questions: What was the bidding process? Why was this particular company selected over others?”

In a similar vein, former Gov. Jon Huntsman, who’s currently campaigning to return to the job, has argued that an internal investigation of the purchase does not suffice.

“Taxpayers deserve an independent investigation into Pillgate to know who made the decision, what their money was buying & why,” he wrote on Twitter.

Editor’s note • Paul Huntsman, a brother of Jon Huntsman, is chairman of The Salt Lake Tribune’s nonprofit board of directors.