In a move that will almost certainly rankle already-perturbed lawmakers, a rejected vendor intends to challenge state health officials' hiring of a competitor to process medical-marijuana identification cards.
The protest could delay for months the outsourcing of the ID cards — ordered by state lawmakers in a sweeping bill passed in June — that are already the subject of frustration for patients, doctors and legislators. The June bill was intended to carry out a voter-approved constitutional amendment broadly legalizing medical marijuana.
Patients have complained about months-long delays in getting the cards, which are required before they can purchase marijuana products from state-sanctioned dispensaries after doctors have ordered the treatment.
Christian Bax, executive director of the state Office of Medical Marijuana Use, heard a litany of complaints this week from lawmakers about delays involving the cards.
Acknowledging that his office has had problems issuing the cards in a timely manner, Bax repeatedly assured legislators that the hold-ups would be resolved once a private company took over.
But on Thursday, the same day Bax issued a notice that he intended to award the contract for the cards to Veritec Solutions LLC, losing bidder Automated Health Solutions Inc. filed a notice that it intends to protest the decision.
A decision from an administrative judge in the protest won't come until mid-February, according to deadlines set out in Florida law.
“We are very disappointed in the delay that this will put in outsourcing our card program. We will continue to do everything in our power to process card applications as quickly as possible to serve Florida's patients,” Department of Health spokeswoman Mara Gambineri said in an email Thursday.
The health department opened an “invitation to negotiate” period on Sept. 1, and received 10 proposals from potential vendors. The department negotiated with the three top scorers — Automated Health Solutions, Veritec and Faneuil Inc. — before announcing the intent to award the contract to Jacksonville-based Veritec on Monday.
Health officials could not provide the amount of the contract, or of Automated Health Solutions' proposal, when asked late Thursday.
Sen. Lauren Book, a Plantation Democrat who grilled Bax about the cards Tuesday, was disappointed that the protest could mean even more delays for ailing patients.
“My hope is that the procurement process went appropriately and that this is not going to have to go out for a rebid,” Book said.
Bax has maintained that his office processes applications for the cards within 30 days, if the applications are complete.
But Book contradicted Bax this week, saying she personally applied for a card and it took more than three months before she received it.
The Broward County senator told The News Service of Florida she intends to send a letter Friday to state Surgeon General Celeste Philip, who is secretary of the Department of Health, detailing her concerns “because patients are dying.”
Bax's staff “is not processing patient ID cards in the way that they're representing,” Book said in a telephone interview.
“I know that they're not. I've done it myself,” she said.
Bax's office also came under fire from lawmakers for failing to meet a legislatively mandated deadline this month to issue new medical marijuana licenses.
He blamed the delay in the issuance of the new licenses on a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a part of the new law. That part of the law requires one of the new licenses to go to a black farmer who had been part of settled lawsuits that centered on discriminatory lending practices by the federal government.