Jens Spahn and the masks: Federal Audit Office criticizes chaotic procurement

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Emma Teitel
Emma Teitel is an award-winning national affairs columnist with the Toronto Star who writes about anything and everything. She got her start at Maclean's Magazine where she wrote frequently about women's issues, LGBT rights, and popular culture.

In an audit report on the procurement of protective equipment in the corona crisis, the Bundesrechnungshof (BRH) is taking the Federal Ministry of Health (BMG) to court. The house of Jens Spahn (CDU) had procured far too many masks in a disorderly process and accepted enormous expenses.

The financial controllers complain that the purchases by a working group in the ministry have led to the fact that the quantity of all masks procured, with a total of 5.8 billion pieces, even exceeded an annual requirement of 4.7 billion protective masks calculated by the Ministry of Health “on the basis of non-factual assumptions by 23 percent”. In the case of FFP-2 masks alone, Spahn’s ministry has procured without procurement in Germany with a quantity of one billion “thirteen times the determined minimum requirement” and “eight times the quantities delivered to the federal states and statutory health insurance associations to date”, criticizes the Federal Audit Office.

The generous purchase of masks is expensive: in addition to the procurement costs of 6.3 billion euros, there would be “annex costs” of 320 million euros so far, which could continue to increase due to litigation and possible disposal costs for too much procured and expired goods, it says.

The Bonn auditors credit the Ministry of Health with the fact that the task was very difficult in the peak phase of the pandemic. And yet: The “over-procurement to this extent” was “avoidable”, according to the judgment of the 50-page report, which is available to DER SPIEGEL.

Thus, the examiners form a drastic summary of their research and further explain the Union man Spahn, who is already under fire in the mask affair. The BRH officials describe chaotic conditions in the ministry in their test report. “Many decisions and individual measures are insufficiently documented in the BMG and cannot be traced, “writes the Court of Auditors:” Their conclusion was partly not reconstructed or only subsequently and with a clear time interval.”Above all, however, the ministry’s measures for quantity control were completely inadequate.

The Court of Auditors had been trying for months to get an overview of mask procurement last year. What was complicated for the officials was that the Spahn employees had procured protective equipment in various ways. On the one hand, this took place direct contracts without tendering, often with the participation of Spahn himself, as DER SPIEGEL has revealed in the case of the Swiss company Emix Trading, among others. Lobbyists such as the daughter of the CSU political veteran Gerold Tandler or the now resigned CSU politician Georg Nüßlein also participated in the multi-million-dollar purchases. This resulted in high commissions.

Another way of procurement was the so-called open house procedure. Among other things, mask dealers were able to deliver FFP2 masks to the ministry in unlimited quantities at a fixed price of 4.50 euros per piece. For this, they received a guarantee of acceptance, provided that the quality of the masks was right. In this way, the Court of Auditors lists, “budgetary obligations” of EUR 6.5 billion have been incurred. “The contracted procurement quantities exceeded both the minimum requirement determination and the delivery quantities many times over,” writes the Court of Auditors.

At times, the Ministry of Health did not have a “sufficient basis for controlling procurement processes,” the BRH complains. This was also the reason why the use of funds was “inefficient”. The chaos has led to the fact that the protective equipment “has often not been used to fight pandemics,” it says.

Ministry refers to ” time pressure«

According to the report, Spahn’s ministry defended itself against the Federal Audit Office, among other things, by the fact that the procurement of protective equipment had been under “immense time pressure”. The global demand triggered by the pandemic has far exceeded the supply available on the market, according to the BMG. The result has been skyrocketing prices and fierce international competition, especially for protective masks.

In order to obtain protective equipment as quickly as possible, the ministry therefore decided to use different procurement channels at the same time. The competition deadlines had been “manifestly impossible” to meet due to the urgency.

The Court of Auditors report is likely to be particularly explosive for the lawsuits brought against the federal government by around 60 mask dealers from the Open House proceedings before the Bonn Regional Court. Spahn’s house had refused to accept the goods, according to the traders for flimsy reasons. In truth, the ministry had realized too late that it had ordered too many masks, and therefore wanted to shirk its obligation now.

This suspicion gets new food with the main accusation of the auditors that the federal government has significantly overbought. Conversely, even after the open-house procedure, the BMG had concluded direct contracts with other dealers without a tender, although enough masks had long been on the way. This now seems even more dubious against the background of the Court of Auditors ‘ report. The Swiss company Emix, which was supposed to deliver goods for just under one billion euros, was once again one of the profiteers of the massive mask procurement.

Warning of expensive disposal

But the BRH has not only investigated the hectic initial phase of the pandemic. The auditors also examined the structure of the so-called National Health Protection Reserve (NRGS). It should help to avoid similar supply bottlenecks as in the corona pandemic in the future. But the inspectors are also skeptical about the administrative qualities of the Ministry of Health. “The design of the NRGS must aim to make future pandemic preparedness efficient and must not serve to justify or perpetuate decisions made in the acute crisis in PPE procurement.«

Thus, the BRH officials allude to the fact that the ministry simply deports too much worried masks to the National Reserve, also in order to apparently disguise mistakes in the procurement process. Obviously, the Court of Auditors is concerned that the insufficiently functioning processes are continuing. “In the opinion of the Federal Audit Office, the structure of the NRGS must not simply be based on the existing structures,” the officials therefore write.

Meanwhile, according to the Court of Auditors, the federal government faces further costs: Due to the “massive over-procurement”, the Federal Ministry of Health will have up to 1.4 billion particle-filtering half-masks and 3.4 billion medical mouth-nose protective masks at the end of the year, which must be recycled before the expiry date. After the expiry date, which usually occurs two to three years after production, the protective effect, for example of FFP2 masks, is no longer ensured.

For the expired goods, further costs would therefore be borne by taxpayers – for proper disposal.

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