SANTA FE – The New Mexico auditor’s office is looking into a $1.6 million purchase of 500,000 masks at a significantly higher cost than the normal list price as states scrambled to buy personal protective equipment.
The state Health Department bought the masks from a Chinese company in April at a price that was two to four times the normal price for similar masks made by a U.S. manufacturer, according to an invoice and purchase order obtained by the Santa Fe New Mexican.
Auditor Brian Colón said there are concerns with these types of purchases and the risks they present, especially during a crisis when supplies may be low or shortages may exist. He said such purchases will be assessed during the audit process.
“We cannot afford any waste, fraud or abuse of these funds,” he said.
Because there was no national system to coordinate coronavirus-related purchases for states, New Mexico faced unprecedented demand for protective gear from other states and globally, the Health Department said.
“There’s no pandemic ‘price match’ feature,” agency spokesman David Morgan said, noting that the department’s priority was getting equipment into the state quickly to protect health care workers.
State Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, chairwoman of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, voiced concern that the protective equipment was procured without consulting with the Legislature.
“I would suspect that had we had a chance to take a peek at it, we might have been able to find some better purchases at the end of the day,” the Gallup Democrat said.
The Health Department used an emergency procurement declaration for the transaction, clearing the way for it to make purchases without going through the usual budget process. Signed April 28 by the agency’s chief procurement officer, the declaration authorized the agency to spend up to $200 million on goods and services for the coronavirus response.
The agency originally paid for the order with money from the state’s general fund but later used federal funding from the relief bill passed by Congress and returned the state money to the general fund.
New Mexico officials said recently that hospitals are now well stocked for protective gear. The officials did not address supplies for local fire departments and other first responders handling medical emergency situations.
More than 7,100 coronavirus cases have been reported in New Mexico, with McKinley and San Juan counties accounting for more than half of those infections. More than 200 people remain hospitalized and 325 people have died.
In other coronavirus developments:
The Dona Ana County Commission voted 3-2 on Tuesday to give the Sheriff’s Office authority to enforce a state requirement that people wear face coverings when out in public. A violation of the ordinance, which is intended to slow the virus’ spread, could bring with it a fine of up to $300, the Las Cruces Sun-News reported.The New Mexico Military Institute plans to have cadets return for in-person instruction in the fall but the school’s chief financial officer says it could see a 10% enrollment drop and a $2.2 million reduction in revenue. Col. Judy Scharmer said no tuition increases or employee layoffs are anticipated at this time, the Roswell Daily Record reported.The state Human Services Department is granting $1,400 in back pay to an employee after federal investigators found that the agency initially refused to grant the worker paid sick leave to care for her children amid the pandemic. Department spokeswoman Jodi McGinnis Porter said the question about the time off arose before the Families First Coronavirus Response Act took effect last month and that the leave was granted after officials asked the U.S. Department of Labor about how to interpret the law, the Albuquerque Journal reported.