Politics

San Diego County Gave $83 Million Bonus To Troubled COVID-19 Hotel Contractor

First Published by: iNewsSource

First written by: Cody Dulaney

San Diego County officials gave an $83 million pay raise to a contractor that has been under scrutiny for its mismanagement of a COVID-19 quarantine hotel program.

The increase came without any change to the contract’s scope of work and at the same time researchers from San Diego State University were evaluating what went wrong with the sheltering program.

That means the total cost of the troubled program is $140.6 million, more than quadruple the $30 million inewsource previously reported. inewsource discovered the increased amounts after delving into the range of contracts the county has with Equus Workforce Solutions.

County spokesperson Michael Workman, who was asked in emails over the last week about the additional money given to Equus, did not give a detailed explanation. In an email sent late afternoon Friday, he would only say that the increase was intended to “add hotels and other resources to expand capacity to meet the increased number of individuals served.”

“As local COVID-19 case rates have surged and gone down, this has required us to amend the contract to ensure there is funding available to expand as quickly as possible,” Workman said in a statement. “While the overall contract cost has increased significantly due to the need to extend the services and expand capacity related to both available rooms and staffing, the pricing for services has not increased.”

The County Board of Supervisors ordered an evaluation of the sheltering program in early March, after an inewsource investigation exposed severe gaps in services and a suicide in a hotel room that wasn’t discovered for five days.

The evaluation, released Aug. 3, confirmed inewsource reporting over the past year and a half from guests as well as county and contract employees who have exposed neglect and wrongdoing in the sheltering program.

It said Equus is unqualified to run the program and that staff aren’t trained to work with many of those who are isolating — people who are homeless and might be struggling with mental illness or substance use disorders. Poorly trained employees allowed the gaps in services and forced COVID-19 patients to suffer through long delays for much-needed medication, according to SDSU’s report.

“These gaps in care coordination may have led to both overdoses and suicide,” one county staff member said, according to the report.

The county’s experience with Equus dates back to May 2010, when it signed a contract to provide services for people in CalWORKS and refugee assistance programs. All told, officials have awarded the company six contracts totaling more than $342 million, according to the county’s website. Four of those contracts deal with providing housing and case management services to homeless people.

It includes a separate four year, $4 million contract to provide hotel lodging and other services Equus had been criticized for not providing. That contract was awarded a week after county officials gave Equus the additional $83 million in compensation.

Government officials often turn to companies they’re comfortable with, especially when there’s an urgent need for a unique request, said Brian Adams, a political science professor at SDSU who specializes in state and local politics. So he could see county staff turning to Equus to take over this new project because “they just didn’t know who else to turn to.”

“But the part to me that seems the most egregious is that after there were problems and in the middle of this investigation, they give them this massive increase without any apparent reason,” Adams said.

After SDSU released its scathing report, which included nine recommendations to improve the program, Workman gave a statement that said officials would take the report into consideration, adding that it would be “our only comment or reaction to the report or your questions.” He has refused to say if any of those recommendations will be implemented and stopped responding to inewsource emails about the report.

Hundreds of people will continue relying on services at these hotels until the county’s contract with Equus expires at the end of the year. Even so, there are no plans to discuss the report or the future of the program at a public meeting.

inewsource has attempted to interview every county board member since release of the report, but none have been willing to discuss it. When asked at an unrelated press conference if the county is reconsidering its contract with Equus, Board Chairman Nathan Fletcher recently said, “The only thing I can say is we’re assessing every legal option for how we can do better.”

This is playing out as the COVID-19 case rate remains high throughout the county and officials urge the public to take more precautions.