NIH probes options for opening governmentwide contracts to D.C.

The National Institutes of Health is exploring whether it can allow the District of Columbia to buy information systems from NIH contracts after Department of Health and Human Services lawyers advised the agency it could not legally shepherd such purchases.

The district wants to buy from at least two NIH contracts: ImageWorld a contract that offers imaging workflow and document management systems and Chief Information Officer Solutions and Partners (CIO-SP) which provides a broad array of hardware software and technology services according to agency officials and vendors.

But federal appropriations law requires district officials to have a formal agreement with NIH before they can purchase goods and services from either contract. NIH received that opinion in June after it had put two task orders from the district out for bid said agency program analyst Elmer Sembly.

Future in Doubt

These two task orders will be awarded because they were already in process before orders from the district were cut off Sembly said but it is unclear when or whether sales will be allowed to continue. "We really have our hands tied " he said. "We have no way to know whether it has been done before what exactly it's going to take [and] whether the necessary people will do it."

Federal agencies are generally prohibited from allowing state and local governments to use their contracts but the district is a special case. To promote efficiency between the federal government and its home city federal spending laws allow the district to purchase services from federal agencies.

But before any goods or services can be sold the law requires the agency and the district to sign an agreement that details the tasks to be performed by each party and specifies that the district will reimburse the agency for its costs. The Office of Management and Budget also must approve the agreement.

Leslie Clune who heads the HHS Office of General Counsel's Business and Administrative Law Division said she could not confirm the existence of the opinion or discuss its contents because it is privileged. But Sembly described the issues the memo raised and he said NIH is now studying what to do next.

District procurement officials could not be reached for comment and calls to the district's financial control board were not returned.

NIH is not the only federal agency trying to help the district with its information technology infrastructure. The General Services Administration's Federal Telecommunications Service has been working with district officials to supply long-distance and local telephone services to the city government.

Jim Jones executive assistant to FTS commissioner Robert Woods said that by mid-September GSA will be providing 2 500 long-distance lines to the district through the FTS 2000 network.

Meanwhile GSA is discussing how it might "save them more money" by integrating long-distance service with local-area voice and data services including Internet access.

In addition Jones said GSA's Federal Systems Integration and Management Center has inked a $500 000 agreement with the district's Addiction Prevention and Recovery Administration to design and build a local-area network for that agency. Jones said he did not know which vendor would be doing the work.

GSA gets its authority to sell telecommunications services to the district from the Federal Property Act.

Larry Allen executive director of the Coalition for Government said agencies want the district to be able to buy from their contracts because the federal government gets better prices than the financially strapped district could get itself. "They would like them to be able to take advantage of those prices and reduce their operating costs " he said noting that the district is also allowed to buy from the GSA schedules.

Pauline Seleski marketing support manager with ImageWorld vendor DoxSys said state and local governments find federal contracts appealing "because they don't have to go through the whole [request for proposals] process."

Some vendors including DoxSys had been marketing their NIH contracts to some state and local agencies but the HHS legal opinion apparently quashed those deals as well.

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