Utah bought $800K in controversial drugs weeks ago but health officials didn’t know

(John Locher, AP Photo, File)

Estimated read time: 8-9 minutes

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SALT LAKE CITY — Even as Utah health department officials say they’re still in the midst of negotiating a contract to purchase possibly up to 200,000 doses of controversial anti-malaria drugs to treat COVID-19 patients, it’s come to light that state officials in a separate department have already purchased 20,000 doses of the drug.

That purchase from Meds in Motion, a Utah pharmacy that has stockpiled the drugs, occurred on March 31 and cost the state $800,000.

That’s according to a state invoice obtained by KSL Thursday, which shows the Utah Division of Purchasing and General Services ordered 20,000 medication packs of chloroquine, zinc and hydroxychloroquine at $40 a dose.

“Apparently there are more orders is the works for this unproven drug that is already available through normal channels,” tweeted Rep. Suzanne Harrison, D-Draper, when she found out about the purchase Thursday. “I’m outraged. You should be too.”

Harrison, a physician and a past president of the Salt Lake County Medical Society, and other medical experts have criticized state leaders’ interest in purchasing the drugs for COVID-19 patients. She said she has “concerns about the state spending taxpayer dollars on unproven treatments with significant risks.”

State health officials made no mention of the $800,000 order when KSL asked questions earlier this week about their plans to purchase up to 200,000 doses.

Gen. Jeff Burton, acting executive director of the Utah Department of Health, told KSL Thursday morning that no drugs have been purchased and the contract was still being hashed out as officials were still trying to decide how much, if any at all, the state should purchase. He said he had “no idea” what Harrison was talking about when she tweeted about the 20,000-dose order.

But when KSL later questioned health department spokesman Tom Hudachko about the $800,000 invoice and pressed him on why state officials have made no mention of the separate order, he said department officials were not aware of it.

“That was executed by the state purchasing and was completely independent of the 200,000 (order) we’ve been working on,” Hudachko said. He said he didn’t know who directed the purchasing division to complete the order or why it was separate from the contract currently being negotiated by the Utah Department of Health.

Chris Hughes, director of the Division of Purchasing and General Services, told KSL to contact the governor’s office for more information about the order. Paul Edwards, communications director of the state’s COVID-19 Community Task Force, said the order was authorized by the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget after the governor’s administration granted the authority to that office early on in its pandemic response to make “quick, strategic decisions to support the state’s response to the pandemic.”

“The (governor’s) administration felt like, given the fracturing supply chains ... GOMB needed to be empowered to act quickly on these types of strategic purchases,” Edwards said.

He said that purchase was made as state officials were moving quickly to procure other high-need supplies, including personal protective equipment and other medical needs.

“It was in that context on March 31 GOMB approved the purchase,” Edwards said, “seeing it at that point as a potential treatment for COVID-19 symptoms.”

Edwards noted the drugs have not yet been delivered to the state, saying the state’s incident command structure “has just not said we need them here right now.”

Asked whether it would be legal for the state to hold or possess the drugs since it is not a pharmacy, Edwards said he didn’t know the answer. “There are important questions here about the role of the state, the role of specific pharmacies, and who could hold and share” the drugs, he said.

Ultimately, Edwards said health department officials will “make this decision about taking delivery” and is “looking closely at what we’re learning from different studies” on how and when the drugs should be used to treat COVID-19.

So far, Edwards said state officials have not yet decided how much of the drugs — if any — will be used for COVID-19 patients.

“Like with all things COVID-19, learning is happening fast. We’re moving from a lot of uncertainty into a little more certainty, and each day seems to bring a whole new set of information,” Edwards said. “I would describe what GOMB did was they purchased an option for a potential treatment and decisions about the usefulness of that treatment can be funneled through incident command and through health in a more systematic way now that we have more a clarified approach to battling the virus.”

Asked why the purchase is only now coming to light, Edwards said state officials aren’t “trying to hide” it, but the purchase — made early on through the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget’s decision-making — wasn’t communicated to the department of health “and they were not aware.”

“This is all on the field of battle that we’re making these decisions, and it’s on the field of battle we’re getting information about how this virus is moving through communities,” Edwards said.

Even as the already-executed $800,000 order came to light Thursday, lawmakers in a special session took their first steps to set aside $8 million for a larger purchase of the drugs.

Despite protests — including from both Democrat and Republican lawmakers with medical backgrounds — the House voted 59-14, as part of HB4001, to set aside $6 million for a “treatment drug stockpile.” The Senate later voted 29-0 to give the bill final approval.

When lawmakers approved a separate bill last week, that included $2 million to be set aside for the same purpose.

Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, a medical doctor, tried to amend the bill to specify that “no appropriation of federal, state or agency funds be expended to directly purchase medications for a government stockpile” unless the medication is for a purpose approved by the Food and Drug Administration and intended for on-label use. His amendment failed on a 39-34 vote in the House.

Ward said the drugs are already available through pharmacies when prescribed for off-label use. However, Ward said there is no proof the drugs have “benefits that outweigh the risk” when being used to treat COVID-19. He argued the state should not use taxpayer funds to purchase “unproven” treatments for the new coronavirus.

Harrison, speaking in favor of Ward’s amendment, said the state has already spent “a huge sum of money” on the “unproven medication” that belongs in clinical trials for COVID-19 treatment, not pharmacies. She noted there is “no shortage” for hydroxychloroquine, and never has been in Utah.

“As a fiscal conservative, I’m opposed to this irresponsible use of precious taxpayer funds,” Harrison told KSL. “This is not the proper role of government when there is no clear medical evidence to support this. Our taxpayer dollars should be used in ways that will actually help Utahns in this crisis.”

Rep. Brad Last, R-Hurricane, opposed Ward’s amendment, saying the aim of the stockpile funding is to ensure Utahns will have access to the drug, whether they need it for COVID-19 or for treatment of other diseases such as lupus, malaria and rheumatoid arthritis.

“Given the attention to this particular drug throughout the country and the fact there could be a run on it and it may not be available, we want it to be available for citizens in the state of Utah,” Last said. “And if it so happens we start to see promising results from the tests that are being done that this drug could be helpful, my guess is we’re not going to be able to get it.”

Critics, including the left-leaning group Alliance for a Better Utah, have blasted state officials for looking to stockpile the drug, arguing it will benefit Meds in Motion owner Dan Richards, who is also a pharmacist lobbyist. Lauren Simpson, policy director for the alliance, has called it a “closed-door sweetheart deal” that would “bankroll” Richards’ “speculative business decision at the risk of Utahns.

Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, spoke in support of Ward’s amendment, saying she’s heard from pharmacists that there is no need to stockpile hydroxychloroquine, and they “they feel like they have adequate supply.”

“This is a safeguard ... that will let our constituents know that we’re not purchasing a large amount and spending a lot of money that might benefit one person and not look to benefit the whole,” she said.

Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, told reporters Thursday evening hydroxychloroquine had been pitched to lawmakers as a potential drug that could not not only save lives, but also save the economy amid the pandemic.

“Of course everybody’s ears perked up and we listened,” he said.

But since then, Adams said studies have both questioned and supported the drug’s potential to treat COVID-19, and now he said he’s been “totally confused by the medical community.”

“I can’t tell you whether it will work or not,” Adams said. “But I do know one thing.”

The senate president said that if it turns out hydroxychloroquine is effective, “think about the fact if we don’t have any of it ... what a travesty.”

At least now, Adams said Utah has the option to treat patients if it turns out to be a drug in high demand.

“And if it doesn’t work and we’ve expended a few dollars, well it might be a travesty,” he said. “But I don’t think dollars will equate to the lives perhaps that may have been lost.”

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Katie McKellar


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