Is Delaware’s Governor Limiting COVID Tests to Help Political Allies ?
For-profit testing companies have been banned, swelling the potential reimbursements for several state healthcare systems
COVID-19 antibody testing is considered crucial to reopening the economy and resuming normal activities. Controversial decisions by one governor, however, have limited the number of antibody tests available in the state in order to favor major campaign donors and close political allies, critics claim.
Antibody tests indicate if the proteins produced by the immune system to fight off COVID-19 are present in an individual’s blood. The results of the test indicate if a person had the coronavirus. That information is particularly useful since many people are asymptomatic or display only minor symptoms.
The results of antibody tests are key in determining how many people have contracted COVID-19, the survival rate, and how close a population is to herd immunity. As a result, most governors in America have opened up coronavirus testing to private companies, along with government and nonprofit healthcare providers, in order to make tests available to as many residents as possible.
Delaware Governor John Carney’s administration has done the opposite, according to the CEO of one large telemedicine company that has administered antibody tests at 22 sites in six states.
Dr. Clinton Baird, a Johns Hopkins-trained neurosurgeon who founded Cura Telehealth, says the Carney administration banned his, and all other, for-profit companies from providing antibody testing services.
After Cura received the approval to begin drive-through coronavirus testing in the parking lot of a Delaware hospital, the hospital received a call from Dr. Karyl Thomas Rattay, the Director of the Delaware Division of Public Health, stating that private coronavirus testing was only permitted if it was performed for free.
“We were told that Gov. Carney ordered that only free COVID-19 tests were allowed in the state,” Baird said. “No one was allowed to charge for a test…no matter how many people wanted tests or how few tests were available.”
When Dr. Baird emailed the administration in hopes of finding ways to provide testing to state residents—as well as offering to provide free tests on certain days, or to low-income residents —he was ignored by the Delaware Department of Health, Delaware Division of Public Health, and the Governor’s Office.
The administration also never responded to Cura’s offer to provide hundreds of high-quality tests at no cost to Delaware residents.
“Since we already had a truck and staff on site [at the time Cura was banned from providing tests] we offered to finish out the week for free to all patients,” said Baird. “But we got no response from the state.”
Multiple calls to the Delaware Health and Social Services communications director for comment on the issue were not returned.
According to Baird, the state closed its coronavirus testing market to providers that were not favored by the administration.
The Carney administration’s selection of five in-state healthcare systems—Bayhealth, Beebe Healthcare, ChristianaCare, Nanticoke Health Services, and Westside Family Healthcare —as partners to provide testing in areas of southern Delaware appears to confirm Baird’s claim.
Each of the healthcare providers chosen to provide testing in Delaware appear to be close political allies of the Democratic governor. Executives and employees of all five heath service providers have donated generously to Gov. Carney’s political campaigns over the years.
ChristianaCare employees, for example, donated $24,544 to Carney’s Congressional races from 2012-2015, according to Federal Election Commission records. Janice Nevin, ChristianaCare’s president and CEO, personally donated to Carney’s gubernatorial campaign in 2016, and ChristianaCare’s website and social media accounts prominently feature photos of Nevin with Carney.
Lolita Lopez, the CEO of Westside Family Healthcare, donated three times to Carney’s Congressional races. She also poured $1,200 into his first gubernatorial campaign, and has already donated another $200 towards this year’s reelection bid, according to state records.
Just days after his inauguration, Gov. Carney relied on Bayhealth’s president Terry Murphy to develop plans to overhaul the state’s Economic Development Office.
Executives at Beebe Healthcare and Nanticoke Health Services have combined to donate well over $10,000 to the Health Executives Action League, a Political Action Committee which funneled at least $2,000 towards Carney’s campaigns.
“It appears that special interests gained the attention of the governor, influencing his decision to create barriers to testing the citizens of Delaware,” according to Baird.
Governor’s Office spokespeople did not respond to questions regarding the possible appearance of cronyism in the COVID-19 testing partnership.
Baird said the Carney administration’s decision to effectively ban potential COVID-19 testing competitors from entering the state “seems like an obvious financial bias.”
“I believe a governor who was concerned about getting people tested would not have turned down an offer to test residents of the state without some other motive at play,” said Baird.
For the health care providers chosen by the state to offer testing, there is a potential for a lucrative payday. In addition to collecting testing fees from those who pay out-of-pocket or through their insurance for antibody tests, the federal reimbursements for antibody testing is expected to be set at $100 per test for Medicare and Medicaid recipients.
The Carney administration’s decision to restrict the number of providers administering tests in the state appears to be playing a role in Delaware’s comparatively low COVID-19 testing numbers.
Last week, CNN discovered that Delaware health officials have been mixing state antibody test data with viral COVID-19 testing, which determines if an individual currently has the coronavirus. As a result, the state’s testing numbers are imprecise and nearly impossible to compare with other states.
Still, even with the benefit of counting both types of tests when most other states count only one, Delaware is lagging behind.
According to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, 53,896 COVID-19 tests have been administered in Delaware as of May 24—the equivalent of 5,363 tests per 100,000 state residents.
Across the Delaware River in New Jersey, 6,778 tests have been administered for every 100,000 people. Nearby Washington, D.C. managed to test 7,401 of every 100,000 District residents.
In Rhode Island, which has roughly the same population as Delaware, 132,701 people have been tested —over two and a half times more than Delaware.
Dr. Baird believes “thousands” more tests would be available to Delaware residents if the governor allowed additional testing providers to operate in the state.
Joanne Butler, a professor and senior economics fellow at the Caesar Rodney Institute of Delaware, calls Carney’s response to the coronavirus “flabby.”
Rather than welcoming out-of-state healthcare providers into Delaware to increase the number of tests available to residents, “Gov. Carney has turned to the major in-state healthcare providers, the ones with lobbyists at the state capital, to provide testing,” said Butler.
“Carney is not a creative thinker,” Butler said. “He’s a product of the Delaware Democrat machine. So he uses 20th Century methods to fight a 21st Century virus.”
In the weeks since the Carney administration denied Cura the opportunity to test residents of the state, the company stopped offering antibody tests to the general public and instead began focusing on providing antibody tests to businesses.
Baird says Delaware’s approach to testing has endangered residents and slowed efforts to reopen the state after the lockdown.
“It is clear from multiple authorities on the matter that testing is essential in prevention of disease spread and return to work strategies.”
When asked how the public should feel about Gov. Carney’s approach to COVID-19 testing, Baird shook his head and replied, “I will leave that to the residents of Delaware to decide.”
Drew Johnson is an investigative reporter and government watchdog expert. He is a member of Investigative Reporters and Editors and serves as a Senior Scholar at the National Center for Public Policy Research.