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Orange County’s glitch-ridden vaccine app Othena continues to generate questions to county supervisors from frustrated residents as well as cost overruns.
And as the costs spiral, contract increases are largely being done out of the public’s eye.
It’s not yet clear how much the controversial app – which allows people to book vaccination appointments through their phone – is costing or how it’s being expanded.
County officials have been contradicting themselves on whether they approved millions in extra spending on the app, and won’t yet reveal the full terms of what the extra money is for.
It all comes as the app prompts public blowback over its secret approval in November and its sudden introduction of “vaccine passports” this month, which county supervisors are promising to remove.
“We know that the contract with the Composite App company was signed [on] November 25, 2020 with no Board of Supervisors signatures, which should have happened [for contracts] over $250,000,” a resident said at Tuesday’s meeting of the county Board of Supervisors.
“When I asked for the [competitive bidding request] and the list of vendors, along with any meeting notes pertaining to this item, I was told that there were none because of the [coronavirus] emergency,” she added.
Without ever appearing on a public agenda or undergoing competitive bids, the original $1.2 million Othena contract was secretly signed by county health officials in November and came to Supervisor Andrew Do’s attention by mid-December.
Yet the contract wasn’t disclosed publicly until late January, in response to a Public Records Act request from Voice of OC.
After the app launched in January, it generated a wave of complaints about glitches and outages, including people waiting hours at a vaccine site only to be told the app was wrong about their eligibility.
The app was ridden with so many problems that Supervisor Don Wagner at one point said in public session that “Othena sucks.”
And while the contract called for Spanish, Mandarin, Vietnamese and Korean translations, the app wasn’t available in any languages besides English when it launched. It would take almost another month before the app was available in Spanish.
Earlier this month, a buried document deep within a county supervisors’ agenda revealed the county planned to quadruple taxpayer spending on the app, from $1.2 million to $5 million.
It hasn’t been easy to find out what exactly that increase is for.
County officials so far have refused Voice of OC’s requests to disclose the exact terms of what the extra millions in taxpayer money is actually paying for.
At first, they said the $3.8 million contact increase had been approved.
That would make it a public record.
But when Voice of OC requested the actual text, county officials gave a different answer:
That it doesn’t exist yet.
“We’re still working on it. So, I haven’t signed any amendment,” county CEO Frank Kim said publicly at Tuesday’s supervisors meeting, in response to questions from Voice of OC and Wagner.
“It will be signed, I think, in short order,” Kim added.
That contradicted what Kim’s staff said a few days earlier, when health officials said the increase “has been approved via the County’s emergency contracting process.”
While approved contracts are public records, county officials maintain that drafts are not.
County officials now say they were giving out inaccurate information when Adil Siddiqui, the Health Care Agency’s technology director, said the multi-million-dollar increase had been approved.
“That was our understanding at the time, which was not factually correct,” Health Care Agency spokeswoman Jessica Good said Tuesday in response to Voice of OC’s questions.
What is the extra nearly $4 million for?
County officials say it’s mainly for extra training and analytical reports.
“The majority of the new cost included in the amended contract includes an accommodation for an expanded workforce from Othena to provide app training for providers/staff, field operations/technical support, scheduling support at all [vaccine sites] and mobile clinics for extended hours,” Siddiqui said in his written answers to Voice of OC earlier this month.
This “allows for a better experience for community members that are getting vaccinated by addressing questions and resolving a variety of user issues related to app usage on-site on a timely basis,” he added.
“In addition, a significant portion of the new cost also included support for the development of a variety of analytics solutions/reports that will better inform our operations on current and emerging COVID-19-related health needs for a thorough planning and execution process that will lead to more effective results and outcomes for our community.”
Officials are promising to disclose the actual terms of increase once it’s finalized – whenever that happens.
“The minute that it’s executed, it will be provided to those that have made the [public records] request,” Kim said Tuesday.
He also said he “will post it on our website when it is complete.”
That came in response to a series of public questions Tuesday from Wagner, who repeatedly pressed for public disclosure of the contract increase.
“The more information that gets out there, the better off all of us are,” Wagner said.
“As I’ve said before in other contexts, if you have nothing to hide, let’s not act like we’re trying to hide anything.”
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.