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Fired COVID-19 vaccine vendor sues Hillsborough, seeks $50 million

Company says it was made a scapegoat for a county ill-prepared for appointment demands.
OnSite nurse Joan Diehl prepares COVID-19 vaccinations at the Strawberry Festival Fairgrounds, one of the vaccination distribution sites in Hillsborough County, in Plant City on Jan. 6, 2021. The county announced the same day it had fired OnSite after residents complained about the scheduling system. The company is now suing Hillsborough County for $50 million, contending it was illegally terminated.
OnSite nurse Joan Diehl prepares COVID-19 vaccinations at the Strawberry Festival Fairgrounds, one of the vaccination distribution sites in Hillsborough County, in Plant City on Jan. 6, 2021. The county announced the same day it had fired OnSite after residents complained about the scheduling system. The company is now suing Hillsborough County for $50 million, contending it was illegally terminated. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published May 17

TAMPA — Fifteen months ago, Hillsborough County commissioners pulled no punches in describing the troubled roll-out of its COVID-19 vaccination program.

“A clown show,” said Commissioner Ken Hagan.

“Utter failure,” said Commissioner Stacy White.

“Fiasco,” said Commissioner Harry Cohen.

Now the company fired by Hillsborough County, after residents complained of a malfunctioning web site and hours-long waits to book appointments, is offering its own description of what happened: Conspiracy, fraud, bad faith, breach of contract and defamation.

The fired company, OnSite Screenings LLC, now known as Horizon Health Services and Technology, and its CEO, Thutrung Alexis Nguyen, are suing Hillsborough County seeking more than $50 million over the terminated contract. The lawsuit, filed May 5 in Hillsborough Circuit Court, also names CDR Maguire Inc., the company that succeeded OnSite Screenings in scheduling appointments and administering vaccines, as a defendant.

The county attorney’s office declined comment on the lawsuit. A voicemail message from the Tampa Bay Times to CDR Maguire’s corporate headquarters in Miami was not immediately returned Tuesday.

Related: Hillsborough commission blasts vaccine 'clown show"

The Jan. 4, 2021, rollout of the appointment system averaged 2,000 to 7,000 calls per minute, in part because people hung up and dialed over and over again when they heard a loud busy signal, the county has said. Likewise, the web site to make online appointments crashed. Two days later, the county said it had fired the vendor, OnSite Screenings.

OnSite Screenings formed in June 2020 and was the successful bidder a few months later to administer the COVID-19 vaccines and tests in Hillsborough County. The commission approved a nearly $14 million contract with the company on Dec. 16, 2020, according to public records. The lawsuit put the value of the contract at nearly $54 million, with half going for testing and half for vaccinations.

Sometime near the Christmas holidays, the lawsuit said, county officials asked Nguyen if her company could handle booking the appointments. Nguyen told the county she would need assistance from another vendor to do so.

“Initially, the county did not have a clue as to how many operators would be needed and consistently kept changing the requirement to arrive at ultimately 12. The county had not developed any guidelines and were vague, haphazard and incomplete in their attempt to set this up, and not really providing any guidelines,” the lawsuit stated.

The vendor did a dry run on Sunday, Jan. 3, but when the system went live the next day, the online appointment system crashed and callers jammed the phone lines “because the county had grossly underestimated the volume of on-line appointments … and had not been prepared for the (call) volume nor had it done the research to determine in advance what would be required,” according to the lawsuit.

The suit alleges county scapegoated OnSite Screenings and fired it improperly to direct the contract to CDR Maguire. OnSite’s attorney, Jack W. Crooks, issued a statement characterizing the termination as “a ruse to cover up their inadequacies and deficient management.”

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The county hired CDR Maguire on Jan. 9 on an emergency basis for 30 days, but later extended the contract for three additional months at a cost of nearly $21.9 million, according to county records. The commission approved the contract Jan. 21, 2021, the same day the commission voted to officially terminate OnSite Screenings.

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