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Airport COVID-19 testers ousted

  • Premier Medical personnel perform COVID-19 Rapid Tests on trans-Pacific passengers on the first day of trans-Pacific travel resuming in October 2020 at Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

Hawaii County ousted Premier Medical Group from its COVID-19 testing program at the island’s three major airports, uprooting more than 100 workers with less than a week’s notice, and brought in another vendor on an emergency two-week, $508,200 contract.

Premier started conducting the post-arrival testing during former Mayor Harry Kim’s administration using federal coronavirus relief funding. When that ended Dec. 15, Mayor Mitch Roth, who took office just the week before, announced a partnership with an unnamed private philanthropist that would keep the program running.

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“It is my hope that these types of public-private partnerships will become a cornerstone of our administration,” Roth said at the time.

But Dr. Ka‘ohi Dang Akiona, Hawaii Island medical director for Premier, said Wednesday that the group hasn’t been paid about $1.5 million for test kits and staff.

“We had several hundred employees we scraped out of nowhere to do this,” Akiona said. “A lot of people from our community are going to lose their jobs and their paychecks abruptly. I cannot imagine how this is going to help anybody in the community.”

The new company will handle post-arrival testing at the Kona, Hilo and Waimea airports.

“We did everything in good faith. When the Roth administration said business as usual, please continue on with what you guys are doing, we’re going to find the money,” Akiona said. “So we did. We kept airports going. We kept community testing going. Anytime the (state Department of Health) needed help with clusters, we did what we needed to do.”

Roth said Thursday that the county isn’t on the hook for all that.

“I did not assure Premier that they would be paid for the period between Dec. 15, 2020 to March 31, 2021. They had a private contract that the county was not a part of,” Roth said. “From April 1 to April 14 we have a contract which we will pay.”

In a Thursday afternoon press release Roth said, “Between the dates of December 15, 2020, and March 31, 2021, the County of Hawaii relinquished all fiscal responsibility related to post-arrival airport testing to our private philanthropist partners who created a new contract with Premier Medical Group (PMG). We did, however, oversee the daily operations of the Hilo and Kona airports during the same period. When an agreement could no longer be reached between PMG and our partners, we took back fiscal responsibility on April 1. In our resumption of fiscal responsibility for airport testing, we chose to seek lower testing rates, as public monies would incur the cost. PMG had notified us of a steep increase in rates, which led us to part ways.”

Premier Medical Group President and CEO Scott Miscovich said the physician-owned and directed, multi-specialty group requested $600,000 for the last two weeks to test 50% of travelers.

“We settled on $508,000 to test 25%. They did not give us an option to bid on the 25%. So do the math — it is actually costing more,” Miscovich told West Hawaii Today on Thursday evening. He later added, “The bottom line is I care about Hawaii Island. We are going to continue to do what we need to do.”

Roth said moving forward, the administration intends to wean off of the post-arrival testing program by first reducing testing to only those trans-Pacific travelers that are unable to prove that they have been vaccinated. He said Hawaii County will be the first in the state to do so.

The sudden change in testing companies brought chaos Wednesday to the Kona airport, and members of the County Council had questions Thursday for the Roth administration.

Kona Councilwoman Rebecca Villegas asked why a company doing a good job was uprooted with just a day or two notice in favor of another for just two weeks.

“So this transition that happened, not smoothly, not instilling confidence and calm in both the constituents and workers at the airport,” she said. “A system that had actually been working and we had great feedback.”

The new company is testing only 25%-50% of arrivals, rather than 100%. Roth’s supplemental emergency proclamation Monday allowed for less testing, said Hawaii County Managing Director Lee Lord.

The money for the new contract is coming from the county’s emergency fund, Lord told the council. The contract is only two weeks because the county is awaiting new direction from the state Department of Health and Gov. David Ige.

Hilo Councilman Aaron Chung questioned how an operation overseen by the county can be paid by a third party without the county having some responsibility.

“The county had to have some involvement in this. We don’t just wash our hands,” Chung said. “We are actually involved because it’s under the county’s authority.”

The administration confirmed the private philanthropist was Marc Benioff, founder and CEO of Salesforce Inc. Calls to the Salesforce San Francisco headquarters were not returned late Thursday afternoon.

Finance Director Deanna Sako said the county contacted three vendors and asked for quotes to continue the work. Basis Diagnosis Inc., a company in the San Francisco Bay area, was the lowest of the three, she said.

BasisDx, as it calls itself, describes itself on its website as a “newly created clinical laboratory entity formed in 2020 by a highly experienced clinical laboratory scientist and physician team.”

Premier said it didn’t get a chance to submit a bid.

“They didn’t reach out to us at all,” Akiona said.

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Email Nancy Cook Lauer at ncook-lauer@westhawaiitoday.com.

Email Laura Ruminski at lruminski@westhawaiitoday.com.

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