Images of long lines, longer waits, and growing frustration have become a trademark of the latest COVID surge at testing sites across Florida.
In Fort Myers last week, a line of cars at the Centurylink site lefts drivers waiting for four hours. The same site also left other patients frustrated because their appointments were cancelled at the last minute. One patient even described to our sister station FOX 4 how he had to return for a second sample because the first one was deemed unusable. 12 days later, he was still waiting for the company to return his results.
In Sarasota last week, Williams Johnston spent 4.5 hours waiting in a car line at a drive-thru-only site for a PCR test then got a rapid test instead.
“Extremely frustrating,” he told us recently.
Both of these sites are operated by the same company, Nomi Health Inc. The Utah-based health care company provides COVID-testing at 99 sites in Florida.
Ron Gonclaves, General Manager of Nomi Florida Operations, said while they expected the surge in demand for tests, “you know that there’s an increase in demand but I don’t think we can anticipate 100% what those are.”
The company is now making changes, from hiring more people in Florida and doubling staff at some testing locations to turning the drive-thru only site in Sarasota into a walk-up site. Patients had also complained the site was a safety hazard since drivers couldn’t leave once they were in line for testing.
“We’ve had to a lot of our people learn on the run,” said Gonclaves.
But state records show the company, which provides COVID testing in ten states, is relatively new to Florida and its deals here are worth millions.
The company first started providing testing services in Miami Dade in September of 2020. Then, last February, the company secured two state contracts for COVID testing services worth a total of just over $46 million dollars. The deals came without a formal bid process and didn’t go through the usual state procurement process since the state hired the company under the Governor’s emergency pandemic order.
According to Florida’s Division of Emergency Management, Nomi was among dozens of “turn-key” ready companies it contracted with as part of its COVID-19 testing and vaccination response.
A closer look at the company and state records also reveal since Nomi was awarded its multi-million dollar Florida testing deals, the company and its CEO, Mark Newman, have added Florida to their political donation portfolio.
According to state campaign finance records, a few months after Nomi secured its state contracts in Florida, the company donated $100,000 to a political action committee (PAC) for Governor Ron DeSantis. Its CEO added another $10,000 of his own to the PAC. In the months that followed, Nomi continued contributing to other Republican candidates and conservative groups in the state including $25,000 to Jobs for Florida, a PAC chaired by Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson, a Republican representing parts of Central Florida.
Dr. Susan McManus is a Florida-based political analyst and retired USF professor. Investigative Reporter Katie LaGrone asked McManus if these political contributions raise questions about the company engaging in ‘pay to play tactics to secure future Florida business.
“Pay to play means a lot of different things. It’s very difficult to prove,” said McManus who also explained how the U.S. Supreme Court adds to that difficulty because it ruled that political donations made by a business, union, or individuals are considered legal and examples of free speech.
“It’s a cloudy, mushy environment this thing called campaign finance,” McManus said. “It’s really hard to say they just gave money because they got the contract but people who are suspicious of the process will look at it and say, ok maybe you didn’t pay and then get the contract but all along you got the contract because the expectation was that you were going to pay afterwards,” she said. “It’s frustrating to people who are uneasy about the link between money and politics,” McManus said.
When asked about the donations made by the company shortly after securing Florida contracts, Nomi spokesperson, Ryan Rauzon, told LaGrone the company is simply exercising its legal right to engage in the political process. Rauzon sent LaGrone a copy of the company’s political donation policy which states how the company “actively supports corporate advocacy initiatives in each one of the communities Nomi Health serves. All lobbying and political contributions follow applicable laws and necessary disclosures,” according to the company policy. LaGrone did not find any reason to believe the company was not adhering to current state campaign finance laws.
When asked about the link between the company’s deals in Florida and its contributions to Governor DeSantis’ campaign, Governor’s spokesperson Christina Pushaw stated in an email that any suggestion the company is bribing the Governor’s office is “as ridiculous as it is insulting.”
Both Florida’s Division of Emergency Management (FDEM) and Florida’s Department of Health added that political donations do not factor into decisions on who they contract with in any way. Nomi does not currently have a contract with FDOH.
“Vendors were selected if they could provide equipment and services,” stated an FDEM spokesperson.
Even if Nomi is still trying to get hose services down with more than a few bumps along the way.
“We knew there was a surge. I don’t think any of us could have predicted it would be as big or bigger in some areas than what we saw over the summer,” said Nomi GM Ron Gonclaves.