T&T company’s bids for health contracts on hold

-after concerns over ignoring of inquiry findings

Following the award of contracts to impugned Trinidad and Tobago company Western Scientific, the Ministry of Public Health has put on hold the company’s bids for two other contracts.

The suspension of the bids followed questions raised about how Western Scientific could be used for sole-sourcing by the Public Health Ministry after damning conclusions were made about the company by a Board of Inquiry (BoI) that investigated procurement practices at the ministry.

“I am aware that two contracts were signed this week and Western Scientific was issued with those contracts, which signals a green light for them to supply…,” Procurement Officer of the Ministry of Public Health Phillip Bryan told Sunday Stabroek on Friday.

“…And there is a bid for two other contracts, and those contracts we will not be going ahead with because that is the instruction I have, but I can’t speak to what items exactly,” he added, before explaining that he did not have the information at hand.

In mid-August, government had announced that the company had secured a contract for the procurement of Sysmex reagents for the National AIDS Programme Secretariat (NAPS) to the tune of US$154,154 (equivalent to $31,937,626). This immediately raised eyebrows as the BoI, established by the Ministry of the Presidency into allegations of mismanagement and malpractices in the procurement of pharmaceuticals at the Ministry of Public Health, had recommended in January that the company’s representative should be barred from future tenders.

The recommendation came on the heels of information that an employee of the Public Health Ministry had conspired with the Western Scientific representative to gain insider information.

Additionally, the BoI had said that the Trinidadian company was hostile to the BoI and failed to appear before it. The BoI also recommended that legal advice be sought over the reviewing of contracts awarded to the Western Scientific representative.

Western Scientific has also been blacklisted by the Inter-American Develop-ment Bank for five years over alleged fraudulent practices here.

The employee of the company cited by the IDB was the same one impugned by the BoI in January of this year. Given all of this, the Public Health Ministry would have to explain why it went ahead with Western Scientific and with single-sourcing when the items were likely available from multiple sources.

Western Scientific was also one of a number of companies that Minister of Public Health Volda Lawrence had told Parlia-ment in June this year had delivered expired or nearly expired drugs to the Ministry.

Lawrence assumed control of the ministry in January and vowed to revamp procurement systems. She will now face questions as to how Western Scientific was used for single-sourcing despite its track record. Single-sourcing is supposed to be limited to situations where only one company is able to supply certain goods.

Sources also say that the ignoring of the BoI recommendation by the ministry will call into question the purpose of dozens of audits and Commissions of Inquiry convened by the APNU+AFC government. In a number of cases, recommendations have not been acted on and Western Scientific is a prime example.

‘Apprised’

On the sidelines of a Pan-American Health Organisation (PAHO) conference on Thursday, Lawrence was asked by the Sunday Stabroek for a status update on the Western Scientific contract and if the ministry was looking at the matter. She explained that she was not responsible for actual procurement in the ministry and was at that time not aware of developments and would have to seek clarity before commenting.

“I would have to check with the department to see what is going on. We have a new procurement department, we have a manager and all of these matters would be within that manager’s purview. I have a meeting tomorrow [Friday], so I am quite certain that whatever the situation is, as of tomorrow I would be apprised,” Lawrence said.

“Tomorrow I would be having a meeting with my procurement manager and I would be apprised of what the issues are. But I can’t talk to you and tell you things I am not apprised about. So let me be apprised first and then you can ask me your questions,” she added.

Asked if she, as minister had asked for an explanation on the contract award, given the BoI’s recommendations, Lawrence pointed to the National Procurement and Tender Administration Board (NPTAB). “There are procedures to be followed with NPTAB and everything. It doesn’t matter if it was sole-sourced, it goes to NPTAB. I think you should talk to NPTAB,” she said.

When this newspaper had visited the NPTAB seeking clarity on the contract, its head Berkeley Wickham refused to comment.

The Ministry of Public Health’s Procurement Officer informed that he did have a meeting with the minister on Friday. “We had some discourse on Western Scientific,” he said, but he could not say much more than he had already explained and surmised that there was a hold on other contracts “for review purposes,” while adding that “the ministry will write you officially.”

Asked to supply

But sources close to the Ministry of Public Health told the Sunday Stabroek that it was following this newspaper’s report that the NAPS contract was single-sourced despite the BoI’s recommendations that “a decision from higher up” was taken to put on hold and have reviews of all other contracts the company has tendered for.

One source explained that the legality of pulling contracts already granted to the company would “leave the ministry subject to court action from the company” since they were not blacklisted by Guyana and was “free to tender for any contract they so wish.” As a result, the company will fulfill the obligations under the current contracts it has with government, pending reviews of others it has bid for.

“As you all reported also, indeed there is no debarment laws here and it was not as if the company put in a bid, you have to remember that the Ministry asked this company to supply it. They gave the contract. So to go back and say ‘Look boy, you can’t get this contract because IDB or a Commission of Inquiry say this that or the other’ would open you up for the company taking the government to court. You have to understand that a move like that leaves the ministry subject to court action from the company,” the source posited.

“There are also other factors but that is another matter, but what I want to say is that procurement practices are not as easy as some believe,” the source added.

The ministry would have to say which of its officials single-sourced the supplies from Western Scientific and on what grounds.

Chairman of the Public Procurement Commission (PPC) Carol Corbin had told Stabroek News that the body would be examining the contract granted to Western Scientific Company Limited.

However, not much should be expected of the findings since the country has no debarment laws and the sole-sourcing obviated competitive bidding. “We will be looking at it,” Corbin said in an interview last week.

While there has been no formal complaint following the granting of the NAPS contract to the company, the PPC would be examining the circumstances of how the contract was awarded.

The PPC Chairman explained that not only are there no debarment laws in Guyana to guide evaluators but, moreover, this particular contract was not reviewed by evaluators since it was sole-sourced through the procuring entity, the Ministry of Public Health.

“There is no debarment law established which allows the entities to blacklist the contractors. They [the procuring entities] have to operate within the law. So if they do not select a contractor and they say it is on the basis of them committing some fraud or something of that nature, suppose that contractor carries them to court? What will they resort to? But in all fairness to them, an entity should access all relevant information when they are evaluating tenders but you can only evaluate based on what is in your tender document and your evaluation criteria. So if the evaluation criteria don’t include a specific reference to your due diligence about specific contractors, your evaluators won’t be able to substantiate any decision that they make. They can only work with what is in front of them and those would be the evaluation criteria,” she said.

“Anyway, what I noted is that it would not have even reached that point because it was a sole-sourced item. So for sole-sourcing, you would have on your list of vendors or contractors, persons who are authorised to distribute [or] to procure a particular item. I was reading the newspaper and I saw where reference was being made that it was not advertised properly and all of that. But with sole-sourcing you don’t advertise, because you would have already had in your data base,  that this particular vendor is the authorised vendor for this particular item…you would ask the vendor for a quotation of the item because over the years this is what you would have been doing and so you select that vendor,” she added.

But in the case of Western Scientific Company, Corbin said that there may have been a “communication gap” that allowed the company to secure the contract. “There must have been some, I would say, gap in communication internally to the Ministry of Public Health because they should have had information saying to them that as a result of this commission of inquiry this company was involved in fraud and corruption,” she noted.

“But as to how robust the results of the CoI [that recommended blacklisting] were, I don’t know. Can the Ministry of [Public] Health rely on that? If there was a specific recommendation to the Ministry of [Public] Health and they didn’t adhere, then that is an issue, but one would have to verify and then look at the whole legality of that,” she added.

The PPC Chairman noted that the mere fact that it was sole-sourcing was because the ministry had probably “concluded at some point and time that this was the only way of getting the particular item here locally.”

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