House Democrats: Utah coronavirus task force needs real accountability

(Ben Margot | AP photo) A pharmacist shows a bottle of the drug hydroxychloroquine on Monday, April 6, 2020, in Oakland, Calif. President Donald Trump and his administration kept up their out-sized promotion Monday of an malaria drug not yet officially approved for fighting the new coronavirus, even though scientists say more testing is needed before it’s proven safe and effective against COVID-19. Trump trade adviser Peter Navarro championed hydroxychloroquine in television interviews a day after the president publicly put his faith in the medication to lessen the toll of the coronavirus pandemic.

Utahns want their government to be smart with money. Utahns expect it. We demand that funds are spent in the very best interest of the public on proven solutions, especially when officials dole out large amounts of money. While we laud the efforts of our state government, hospitals, and private sector to manage the COVID-19 pandemic, we are concerned to see emerging patterns around expediency and lack of transparency that muddle what is best for the public. Clearly, Utahns must speak loudly to hold our government accountable during this challenging and unprecedented time.

We can all agree we need widespread testing to make us feel confident when we resume more normal lives. We are grateful that we have leveraged our energetic and dynamic tech industry to greatly help increase our testing capacity. The governor’s office has, however, been slow to make public the state’s contracts with technology companies operating testing sites and websites.

Naturally, we have questions: For how long are we on the hook? What metrics are expected to be met? Who is getting how much of our taxpayer dollars to do what? It is wonderful that Utah has increased the number of tests available and at a fraction of the cost elsewhere, but taxpayers deserve transparency.

Understandably, the public is irritated by the troublesome news of the state’s contract with a private pharmaceutical company — Meds in Motion — to buy enough hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine to treat 20,000 Utahns. The drug’s effectiveness for treating COVID-19 is still very much unproven and questionable.

This week the FDA warned that hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine should not be used for COVID-19 outside a clinical trial or hospital setting because of heart complications. Medical experts on the state’s coronavirus task force have forcefully advocated against this purchase and allocation of $800,000 from our state funds. Furthermore, Utah pharmacists claim they already have the capacity to provide the drug, should it prove effective in ongoing trials.

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. Utahns made their voices heard and forcefully came out against the deal. Thankfully, Gov. Gary Herbert announced Friday that he was putting a stop to more purchases of the drug and had ordered a review of how the initial purchase took place.

We still have some questions: What was the bidding process? Why was this particular company selected over others? Why was the state’s procurement process not used?

As Utah shifts away from this emergency phase toward recovery, transparency is crucial. We must know decision makers’ priorities. The legislature’s newly created Public Health and Economic Emergency Commission has nine members who should have an eye on the system as a whole, and not simply the views and concerns of individual healthcare organizations or businesses. We hope the business leaders, hospital executives, and public officials on the commission are consulting those with front-line expertise, but the current commission membership does not include advocates for the public at the decision table. They must be part of any advisory body.

Transparency, accountability, and public interest should be the focus for Utah moving forward. We have acted successfully during this emergency to keep COVID-19 cases down and our hospitals from being overrun. The next phase will demand we proceed carefully and thoughtfully, making sure our public officials are using our shared tax dollars in the most responsible ways for the public interest.

Signed, members of the Utah House Democratic Caucus, Rep. Patrice Arent, Rep. Joel Briscoe, Rep. Jennifer Dailey-Provost, Rep. Susan Duckworth, Rep. Suzanne Harrison, Rep. Sandra Hollins, Rep. Karen Kwan, Rep. Brian King, Rep. Stephanie Pitcher, Rep. Marie Poulson, Rep. Angela Romero, Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, Rep. LaWanna “Lou” Shurtliff, Rep. Andrew Stoddard, Rep. Elizabeth Weight and Rep. Mark Wheatley.