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Critics question administrator's role in contract selection

Friday, June 12, 2009
Daily Herald
by Rob Olmstead

Opponents of a controversial purchasing agreement being pursued by the Cook County hospital system are questioning the past connections of the hospitals' purchasing agent to the winning bidder.

Leslie Duffy, the purchasing agent, worked from 2004 to 2007 for VHA Inc, the parent company of the supply-buying consortium the hospital board recently voted to join, hospital COO David Small confirmed Thursday, and prior to that, she worked for two years for the consortium UHC/Novation, according to a copy of her resume.

Small, however, said it was Duffy who brought the potential conflict of interest to his attention and that of hospital board members, and she was removed from the process of picking which consortium - or group purchasing organization - the county would join.

"That (prior employment) was disclosed to the board and everybody that she did have that prior relationship," said Bill Foley, CEO of the hospital system.

Still, officials conceded last week at a public meeting, that Duffy had a nonvoting role on the committee that picked Novation.

Cook County Commissioner Joseph Mario Moreno, an opponent of the GPO process, said he'd like to know exactly what Duffy's role was, and to see the minutes of that committee's decision-making process. While hospital board members may have been aware of the conflict, county board members were not, and they should have been, said Moreno.

"I think so. Although we have no control over what the (hospital) board does, we do have fiscal oversight," said Moreno, who opposes the GPO process, in part, because he believes it will lead to the exclusion of minority vendors.

"She had input because that's (purchasing) her area of expertise, but in terms of influencing the decision, she was excused from that," said Foley.

The hospital system used to be run by the Cook County Board, but was separated last year, in part, because of concerns of political influence over contracts.

A county ordinance requires that if hospital administrators have a financial interest in a vendor, county board members be notified of the conflict.

Small said he did not believe Duffy has any financial interest in Novation, although he conceded she has "a retirement program from them."

He did not know, however, if the plan's value was in any way dependent on the company's fortunes.

Proponents of the GPO process - which buys supplies in bulk in an effort to save money - say it is now standard in the hospital industry and a money saver.

Duffy declined to discuss the matter with the Daily Herald.

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