City Council members on Wednesday criticized members of Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration for what they saw as a lack of partnership between the city and the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium, a group formed to address the disproportionate impact the coronavirus pandemic has had on the African American community in Philadelphia.
Councilmember Cherelle Parker, usually a Kenney administration ally, aggressively questioned Public Health Commissioner Thomas Farley at a budget hearing over why the group hasn’t received public funding for its testing work, turning the mayor’s vow earlier this year that budget decisions will be made through a “racial equity lens" against the administration.
“This process is not all right with me. If we’re going to talk about the challenges facing the city through a racial equity lens, we can’t turn it on and turn it off when it seems to be convenient for us,” Parker said in an interview after the hearing. “It has to be what we use to govern, to appropriate services, particularly when we look at the demographics of the city of Philadelphia.”
The dispute over funding for the consortium dovetails two issues of racial equity, one new and one old, that have become central to the debate over how city government should navigate the pandemic. For years, Council has urged successive mayoral administrations to increase the proportion of city contracts that goes to organizations owned or run by women and members of racial minority groups. And in recent months, city officials have struggled to address the disproportionate harm that the coronavirus — by exacerbating long-standing inequities in health care, housing, and employment opportunities — is having on the African American community.
Those inequities are what prompted Dr. Ala Stanford, a Montgomery County surgeon who grew up in North Philadelphia, to start the consortium. The group has partnered with black churches to host pop-up sites that have tested over 4,500 people.
On Wednesday, Parker and other members asked Farley why the administration hasn’t directed any money to the consortium from a $92 million grant the city was recently awarded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The grant, to be spent over 2½ years, is for coronavirus testing and contact tracing, interviewing those who test positive for the disease and tracking those they may have infected.
Farley said the administration, aiming to start distributing the money as quickly as possible, has so far worked with two health-care providers that already have contracts with the city: the Public Health Management Co. and the Philadelphia Mental Health Care Corp. The arrangement allows the administration to quickly amend the existing deals rather than go through procurement processes with new vendors. The city is still negotiating with those organizations and hasn’t said how much of the grant money they will receive.
Farley also noted that an estimated 30,000 black Philadelphians have been tested, meaning efforts by the city and traditional providers have reached the community.
"We think [the consortium’s work] is great. We are appreciative of that,” Farley said. But, he added, “it wasn’t like they were the only organization that was offering testing to African Americans.”
The administration has other concerns. The consortium recently submitted a bid to the city to provide testing services costing $6.9 million over six months, according to a copy of the bid obtained by The Inquirer. The bid, however, was more than double the cost of what the only other applicant, a chain of urgent care clinics, offered to charge for similar services, an administration official said.
The consortium’s bid included $566,000 for executive salaries and wages, including $225,000 for Stanford, over six months.
“It seems very high on the personnel and seems somewhat low on the actual programmatic expenses,” said an administration source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect relationships with Council and with the vendors. “We want to see that the vast majority of the expenses are going into delivering services."
Parker and Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, however, noted that Richard J. Cohen, president and CEO of the Public Health Management Corp., is paid over $700,000, according to the organization’s federal nonprofit filings.
Quiñones-Sánchez said the administration is using a double standard to judge the consortium. “They want to make them look bad because ‘How dare a black group ask for $7 million?’ ” she said.
Parker said the consortium’s higher bid may reflecta common problem with efforts to increase minority contracting: Legacy vendors are often able to place lower bids because they already have built up their infrastructure through previous work, which can create a cycle of exclusion for newer firms trying to break into a market.
What other firms can’t offer, Parker said, is the trust that the consortium has built among African Americans who either don’t have access to the traditional health-care system or who distrust it.
“They don’t hold Ph.D.s in cultural competency," Parker said. "It’s important during this time that black people, who are disproportionately affected during this pandemic, get a mechanism to see physicians who look like them.”
Following Council members’ pillorying of Farley at the hearing, Kenney defended his public health commissioner.
“If Council wants to yell at him, he’s a big boy," Kenney said in a virtual news conference. “He can take it. But I have never worked with a public servant that is that dedicated to public health.”
— Staff writer Laura McCrystal contributed reporting.