19 May 2021

'An obscene waste of money' - Orion boss criticises govt's Covid-19 vaccination IT delivery

From Checkpoint, 5:42 pm on 19 May 2021

The boss of a global health information company is calling out the government over its slow delivery of essential IT to scale up the Covid-19 vaccination rollout, saying it should have been finished months ago.

On Tuesday, the director-general of health told Checkpoint getting the critical computer networks up and running for the mass immunisation programme was a "herculean task".

An audit has identified gaps in the information technology needed to deliver the immunisation programme, with a nationwide booking system still only in a trial stage, meaning some regions are using pen and paper or standard spreadsheet software.

Orion Heath chief executive Ian McCrae told Checkpoint there was no excuse for it taking so long.

"It's not a lack of money. I mean we're spending way more than we should," he said, regarding projects like the $38 million spend on a Covid-19 vaccination register made by an overseas company, and the breast cancer screening register which cost at least $50m.

"The real problem is our tendering process in New Zealand is substandard. We're tendering all over the world and New Zealand is definitely not world-class.

"I think that is reflected in that we have a number of central government projects have overruns, failures, targets missed, huge consulting bills. So I think the systemic problem is the way we're procuring these systems in government isn't working. 

"The amount of money being spent on those projects is just a huge amount of money. We have people within this organisation and within the health sector who have been working in the area for many years and they just see that as an obscene scandalous waste of money.

"So we didn't have much choice but to raise it with the auditor-general."

While acknowledging Orion had an interest in procuring contracts like the Covid-19 register, McCrae said it would be a small one for his company.

"We have projects which are many, many times the size of this project. It could have easily been won by other vendors as well, and that would be absolutely fine from our point of view.

"[But] New Zealand is not getting good value for money from this project, and it's not even live today."

In the auditor-general's recent report on the Covid-19 vaccination roll out, it recommended a booking system, an inventory and distribution system, a vaccination register and an adverse events register. The report said all those systems need to be integrated.

Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield told Checkpoint that was a "herculean task", and added that an initial vaccination register was available for use in December if it had been needed.

McCrae said that was not a fair assessment.

"The director-general is wrong. A 'herculean' project is something over $100 million. It's automating an entire health economy when you're looking after 10-40 million patients.

"These projects here are one to three percent of that size are relatively small. The only thing herculean about this project is the price tag."

McCrae said Orion would have quoted between $1 million and $3 million, depending on features of the system.

"A significantly lower sum, and I believe other vendors would have quoted in that area.

"We would have very likely lost to others, and that's absolutely fine, but $38 million for immunisation, $55 million for breast [cancer] screening. It just doesn't make sense."

He said it was "ridiculous" the Covid-19 vaccination booking system was not live already.

"A booking system is not herculean… We would have looked to have all of those systems up and live before Christmas. That's last Christmas, or shortly thereafter.

"We already have a national booking system working for the breast [cancer] screening software that's been in place for many years. And there are other vendors out there with very good booking systems, so I have no idea why it's taking so long. 

"It goes back to the fact that the Ministry of Health didn't issue a proper tender. [If] they'd issued a proper tender, vendors like us would have said, 'here's the price and we'll be live by December, January, whatever'.

"So they would have got a number of options on the table. And what I'm saying is there are far better options out there, many of them not from us, which are cheaper, better [and] would have been live today."