Contract to carry out screening awarded for 'lowest price'
The contract to carry out cervical smear tests on behalf of the State was awarded in 2012 based on the cheapest price available, tender documents suggest.
A notification published after a procurement process says that Quest Diagnostics and MedLab Pathology were awarded the contract based on the "lowest price", with no details on the other criteria involved.
MedLab Pathology is a sister company of Clinical Pathology Laboratories Ltd (CPL), the company which settled a lawsuit with terminally ill mother-of-two Vicky Phelan for €2.5m. Ms Phelan's highlight of her case exposed major shortcomings in the national cervical cancer screening programme.
Official documents show that a two-year contract to carry out screening services on behalf of the National Cancer Screening Service (NCSS) was awarded to US laboratory Quest Diagnostics in 2008.
In 2010, the NCSS conducted a second procurement process and extended the company's contract for another two years. It also awarded a contract to Clinical Pathology Laboratories Ltd (CPL), through its company MedLab Pathology. But in 2012, the NCSS again advertised for testing services.
It said that between 300,000 and 350,000 pap smear tests were conducted every year, with two contracted laboratory services already in place, with contracts due to expire in July that year.
Bids would be subject to a scoring system where 400 of the 1,000 marks were based on "ultimate costs", 550 for "proven ability and methodology to meet NCSS service requirements" and 50 for "value-added services".
The tender added: "The contract will be awarded to the most economically advantageous tender submitted on the basis of the following anticipated award criteria", but that NCSS reserved the right to "develop these more fully or alter them".
A contract award notice published by NCSS in December 2012 said that Quest Diagnostics and MedLab had been awarded the contract. Under "award criteria", a box saying "lowest price" was ticked and not "the most economically advantageous tender".
Documents show the NCSS believed while "not obliged" to enter a tendering process, it did so to ensure "transparency and fairness" and to "deliver the best quality service for women in Ireland".
The HSE last night said that "as with all tenders, cost is one of a number of criteria for which all tender submissions are evaluated and scored."
The HSE did not set out the other criteria used.
HSE director general Tony O'Brien, who stepped down as head of NCSS in 2010, told the Oireachtas Health Committee this week there were 10 active legal cases involving the CervicalCheck programme. He said six had reached the point of legal proceedings, while the other four were described as being at "pre-legal proceedings" stage.
High Court records indicate five cases have been initiated in recent years where MedLab Pathology Ltd is a defendant or co-defendant. In one of these cases, against MedLab and the HSE, a woman has alleged she was given the all clear for three successive years, only for her cancer to be detected retrospectively during an audit. The lawsuit has yet to be resolved.
Five cases were also initiated in recent years where Quest Diagnostics is a defendant or co-defendant. One of these was settled in 2014 with no admission of liability. The Irish Independent has learned it involved a 2011 smear test analysis where abnormalities were missed.
In another case against Quest Diagnostics, which has yet to be resolved, it is alleged a woman endured significant and life-altering complications during her treatment. MedLab said it could not comment on cases before the courts, while Quest Diagnostics did not respond to queries this week.