Pensacola, Florida
Friday July 19th 2019


Outtakes—Expensive Workaround

By Rick Outzen

Escambia County officials cannot procure anything that costs $50,000 or more without the approval of the Board of County Commissioners. As with most rules, there is always a workaround. At the county, department heads get around it by having vendors send in quotes below that threshold.

In April, Escambia County Emergency Medical Services asked the board to write off $5,972,901 in uncollected EMS bills, which officials said was due to a software glitch. The county bought a new billing and medical documentation system in February 2018. To avoid having to explain the purchase to the commissioners, the software was bought in three parts all under $50,000. Problems began to pop up, and EMS eventually abandoned the new system.

County Attorney Alison Rogers told the board that her staff was reviewing whether the county can recoup any of the expenditures but also said the likelihood was slim considering the staff didn’t follow the regular procurement process.

Sadly, no one seems to know who made the costly decision. Shouldn’t there be a clear paper trail of how this debacle came about? Interim County Administrator Matt Coughlin told the commissioners last Thursday that he ordered the internal investigation in April.

He explained, “I initiated it to give us the history of it. Were any procurement policies broken, and we’ll look at that and do a deep dive.”

Thank you, Mr. Coughlin, but the vote was April 4, and after six weeks, we still don’t have answers as to how this happened. Heck, the former interim administrator, Amy Lovoy, hired Janice Kilgore to investigate public safety. Kilgore claimed she interviewed 50 people.  Couldn’t she have asked a few of them about the software purchase?

The purchase of medical billing software shouldn’t be taken lightly, according to a retired hospital official who spoke with Inweekly. The conversion of such a system for a hospital usually takes months and requires a detailed, systematic installation and implementation plan. Maybe the county’s internal investigation will tell us whether the failure was due to the vendor or the lack of qualified staff at EMS.

But the workaround problem is bigger than the EMS billing software. In January, Lovoy asked staff to expedite the purchase of a training service to get five wayward EMS employees certified. It appears pressure was put on Medical Director Dr. Rayme Edler to find a vendor that would do the work for less than $50,000. The pressure appears to have been institutional, and Edler didn’t quite know how to play the game.

We need to know how many other departments have used the same workaround and who has gotten those contracts and why. We need a deeper dive into county operations.