State contracting officials have allowed vendors to redact pricing information for COVID-19 tests from more than half a dozen public contracts, and newly obtained emails show the state went out of its way to accommodate at least one company after it missed a deadline to claim its pricing should be kept secret.
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State officials initially reached out to Quest Diagnostics on June 1.
“Per the contract, Quest has 10 days to notify our office in writing ... of all confidential information contained in the agreement that the vendor claims may be exempt from public disclosure,” wrote Natalie Braswell, assistant comptroller and general counsel in the Office of the State Comptroller.
On June 10, Braswell followed up again -- and got no written response. Then, on June 23, nearly two weeks after the contractual 10-day window had expired, she sent Quest a third email soliciting redactions.
“To date we have not received a redacted copy of the Quest contract,” Braswell wrote. “If we do not have a redacted copy complete with an explanation as to how those redactions fall under the [Freedom of Information] Act we will assume that there are no redactions and provide copies of the contract in its entirety.”
That email got a response. In it, an attorney for Quest explained the delay -- one that is plaguing a lot of people working from home during the pandemic.
“I am having to print out each page on my very old laser printer, hand redact, and then rescan on my very slow scanner,” an attorney for Quest Diagnostics wrote in a June 23 email. “I can send you the PDF with the portions which need to be redacted highlighted, and if you could do it, it would go a lot faster. Is there anyone in your office who could help me?”
Quest did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.
Again, after the deadline had passed for Quest to claim its exemptions, the state was nevertheless accommodating.
“[M]aybe it would help if you let me know what portions of the Agreement you are redacting and the explanation for each and we can discuss what would be accepted by the state and what would not based on the FOI Act,” Braswell wrote.
One month after the state’s contract with Quest was signed -- and nearly three weeks after the privacy deadline had passed -- state officials released a public copy.
The price per test was redacted.
One Missed Deadline, And A Lot Of Follow-ups
Purchase orders from the state show it has budgeted more than $50 million in taxpayer dollars to fund widespread COVID-19 testing. Aggregate amounts for the contracts are posted online, and the state said it’s paying an average of $117 for each test and its associated lab work.
Emails show at least seven vendors doing that work indicated they wanted certain information withheld from the public postings of their contracts.
“I believe the language says that we have 10 days to provide you with a redacted copy, correct?” asked a lawyer for Yale New Haven Health System on May 14.
“Correct. No worries. I will not post publicly until I have a redacted copy from you or get your ok to post as is,” Braswell responded.
Another company specifically asked about pricing.
“Does the fee schedule count [to be] redacted?” asked a representative of PhysicianOne Urgent Care on June 1. “Basically not letting competitors or other customers see our pricing?”
“Pricing has been redacted by contractors for that reason pursuant to statute,” Braswell responded.
Lembo’s office did push back on several redactions requested by vendors, such as how many tests those vendors could run, otherwise known as its “testing capacity.”
“[A]s I review some of the redactions, such as the capacity numbers, that is not something that I readily see as being exempt from disclosure,” Braswell wrote in a May 22 email to Hartford HealthCare.
State Comptroller Kevin Lembo declined to be interviewed or provide a statement, but he told Connecticut Public in an interview last week that a clause in the vendors’ contracts afforded them an opportunity to redact from public view information they deemed sensitive.
“We don’t encourage them or discourage them, but we do … anticipate that there will be interest in whatever contracts we sign,” Lembo said. “And so we let them know that here’s your window. If you have things in here that need redaction, now is the time for you to put those in place.”
“That is not something that is contentious or an outrageous moment in negotiation,” Lembo said. “You know, it’s pretty standard.”
The ‘Really Weird Space’ Of COVID-19 Contracting
Democratic House Majority Leader Matt Ritter (D-Hartford) said he’s curious just how standard such price redactions are.
“It is really critical that we understand what we are being charged, why we’re being charged -- how does that compare to our neighbors,” Ritter said. “I don’t think any legislator would disagree with that, or the governor’s office, for that matter.”
Ritter said Gov. Ned Lamont had a COVID-19 response that was “about as by the book as you can get,” but he acknowledged that responding to a public health crisis means some things “have to happen at warp speed, and that’s not exactly how the legislature normally works.”
“We’ve been operating in a really weird space,” Ritter said. “The governor signed six executive orders a day that run the state, right? It’s just a very different time. It’s in these situations that you’ve got to be particularly careful … about not having the public feel like they’re not in the loop.”
Ritter said if the price redactions are related to some aspect of the state’s COVID-19 response, “that might be an intellectual argument that I could understand.”
But, Ritter said, “if this exception is claimed all the time, then I think it’s fair to say that the legislature’s probably going to need to narrow that down.”
Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano (R-North Haven) said the back-and-forth between the state and its vendors over FOI “gives him great concern.”
“That sounds like a lot of foot dragging to me ... I don’t think you leave it to a third party to make the FOI decision,” Fasano said. “They’re past the 10 days … and they should disclose the information.”
“I understand some of it, but where does this end?” Fasano said. “At least you can say how much you’re spending … for testing. That’s the least you can do.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Matt Ritter's leadership position. He is the Democratic house majority leader.