Even as the state enters multiple no-bid contracts, the PrepMod procurement was especially opaque
Last week, the state’s COVID-19 vaccine signup website crashed. A lot of people were upset, Gov. Charlie Baker expressed his disappointment, and the vendor of the PrepMod software Massachusetts uses to schedule appointments took responsibility for its role.
But while some public accountability might be happening, a big piece is missing: the contract. [UPDATE: Following the publication of this article on Monday morning, a state media relations person finally sent us the contract we requested on Feb. 9. We are busy looking through it and will have an update soon, but in the meantime, if you want to take a look for yourself, here it is.]
By way of background, PrepMod is a software product of the Multi-State Partnership for Prevention, an LLC subsidiary of a nonprofit called the Maryland Partnership for Prevention (MPP). Last year, the federal government passed over MPP and contracted instead with consulting company Deloitte to create the Vaccine Administration Management System (VAMS), a similar system to PrepMod. So similar, in fact, that MPP’s executive director Tiffany Tate has alleged that Deloitte stole her intellectual property, effectively copying PrepMod and selling it to the federal government for more than Tate would have charged.
As VAMS has come under fire for ineffectiveness, it has fallen to the states to find alternatives. PrepMod’s popularity suggests it is more functional than VAMS: though states can get VAMS from the federal government for free, in a Feb. 6 New York Times article, Tate said that 27 states and jurisdictions have purchased PrepMod. This number includes states at the front of the pack in terms of vaccine distribution—like North Dakota, as well as those falling behind—like Rhode Island.
Meanwhile, a Deloitte spokesperson quoted in MIT Technology Review could boast only 10 jurisdictions, three federal agencies, and a single hospital system using VAMS. As for PrepMod, besides the website crash in Mass, the system has been blamed for issues occurring with vaccine distribution in multiple states, including California, Maryland, and Washington.
Solid investment or not, how did Massachusetts pick this system? And how much did it pay?
The answer is that we don’t know. As has been reported by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and DigBoston among others, due to the pandemic emergency, Massachusetts has made many contracts, for PPE for example, without using the typical required bidding process over the past year. For many of those contracts, some public documents have at least been made available online. For PrepMod, that is not the case.
Looking elsewhere, Pennsylvania’s contract is available online: last December, that state’s health department bought an “end-to-end system that automates aspects of managing public health programming” from the “Maryland Partnership for Prevention & Multi-State Partnership for Prevention.” It spent $852,000.
According to an interim draft of Massachusetts’s COVID-19 Vaccination Plan published on Oct. 16, this state’s Department of Public Health also bought PrepMod. But COMMBUYS—the official online listing database of state procurements—turns up nothing for “PrepMod,” “Multi-State Partnership for Prevention,” or “Maryland Partnership for Prevention.”
The result closest to anything resembling a contract for COVID-19 vaccine distribution appointment software is a Nov. 17 bid solicitation for “COVID Vaccine Provider Support.” No vendor is listed, and the award is marked “pending.” Clicking on this database entry usually provides further details about the solicitation, such as whether the bidding process is open. For this entry, an error message appears instead: the public isn’t authorized to access the information.
On Feb. 9, DigBoston filed a public records request with the state’s Department of Public Health, asking for this contract as well as correspondence relating to PrepMod and the entities that produced it. Since the email that confirmed receipt of our request that same day, we have not heard back.
This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism as part of its Pandemic Democracy Project.
Polina Whitehouse is a reporter, editor, and student based in Greater Boston. You can find more of her writing in the Harvard Crimson, the Arizona Republic, and the Harvard Political Review, as well as on the website of the Harvard Advocate, where she is the blog editor and a member of the poetry board. As a Harvard undergrad, she's majoring in Social Studies with a focus in ethics.