PIERCE COUNTY, Wash. — A company lost its contract working for the COVID-19 testing program in Pierce County after complaints over slow test results and a questionable history exposed by the KING 5 Investigators.
A Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department (TPCHD) spokesperson said the department is no longer working with Spokane-based Honu Management, which handled the online registration system and lab services contracts for several of the county’s public testing sites.
Complaints about Honu’s test turnaround times began soon after the company started working with the county in January.
“Why go? You don’t get results. Use someplace else,” one patient, who was tested at the Washington State Fairgrounds in Puyallup in January, wrote on the health department’s Facebook page.
“Six days and no results,” another frustrated patient said.
Perrin Walker was one of the people who waited in long lines at the fairgrounds’ “bronze lot” to get tested. He started browsing comments when he didn’t receive results after six days.
“Some people had been waiting 10 days and still hadn’t heard anything back. So, I got a little bit more concerned,” Walker said.
His call to the testing company went straight to voicemail. That’s when he first heard the name Honu Management.
“I remember something from KING 5 about that company,” Walker said.
Some Facebook commenters started posting a link to a 2020 KING 5 story about Honu Management. The story reported that Dallas County, Texas suspended its contract with the Spokane company after it failed to meet the required deadlines for returning test results. The county claimed that Honu overstated its ability to provide test results.
The county also learned some of Honu’s company officers were exposed in another KING 5 investigation from 2019. In that story, a man named Devin Thornton was accused of running a “kickback scheme,” according to hundreds of pages of documents from the Washington State Department of Health (DOH).
The DOH documents state that Thornton operated DA Medical Group, which solicited local doctors for the alleged scheme. Doctors overprescribed medications for patients and billed the charges to insurance companies, the documents state. The state investigation found that DA Medical and the doctors split the profits from the inflated insurance payments.
In 2019, lawyers for several of the doctors denied any wrongdoing. Thornton and DA Medical Group never responded to KING 5’s request for comment. More than five years after the investigation was initiated, DOH said the Podiatric Medical Board – which disciplines doctors –has not ruled on the case.
When the pandemic hit in 2020, records show that Devin Thornton and other officers from DA Medical Group founded Honu Management in the same small Spokane office. Honu began seeking publicly-funded testing contracts in the emerging world of COVID-19, stating the company could setup operations and deliver results faster than competitive bidders.
Honu won tens of millions of dollars in public contracts to manage COVID testing operations in Michigan, Texas, and Mississippi, among other places.
As complaints against Honu mounted in Texas, Dallas Morning News reporter Holly Hacker started researching the company’s officers and found KING 5’s 2019 story on Devin Thornton and DA Medical. Though Thornton has never responded to KING 5, he did speak with Hacker.
“Devin Thornton told us there was no kickback scheme and that his company was performing legitimate work for these other companies they work with and that it was someone else’s wrongdoing,” Hacker said.
However, after the Dallas Morning News articles were published, Dallas County cancelled its contract with Honu Management.
Perrin Walker, the Tacoma man who waited six days for his test results from Honu, wonders how Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department missed the red flags from all the news coverage on Honu.
“They should properly vet the companies they are selecting,” Walker said.
A DOH spokesperson said Honu was a subcontractor hired by the primary contractor that the county chose to run the COVID testing program, LTS Emergency Response of Virginia.
“We did not perform a background check for Honu Management. We contracted with LTS for testing. LTS subcontracted with Honu for (testing) registration (and other services),” said TPCHD spokesperson Kenny Via.
“LTS no longer subcontracts with Honu for any of its work in Pierce County,” Via said.
Via declined requests for on-camera interviews.
Emails show that health department officials were in direct contract with Honu and Devin Thornton. They did not vet the company until they received questions from citizens and KING 5 in January. Even then, the health department balked at acting.
“We are happy with Honu’s daily reporting of registration data,” Deputy Director Cindan Gizzi wrote in a January 10 email obtained by the KING 5 Investigators through a public records request. “We will allow LTS to continue to subcontract with Honu.”
Emails show that two days later, that decision was overruled.
“We met with LTS to discuss Honu’s involvement in the testing process and request a new subcontractor. LTS began using different tests with faster processing times and brought in a new subcontractor for registration,” Via said.
Thornton and LTS did not respond to KING 5’s requests for interviews.
Though Thornton’s name appears throughout the 1,500 pages of documents from the 2017 “kickback” investigation, the state department of health said Thornton and DA Medical are not the targets of that years-long probe.
The DOH said it can only investigate state-licensed facilities and healthcare professionals. It is focused on the licensed doctors in that alleged kickback scheme, not Thornton who does not have a medical license.
That leaves Thornton and Honu Management free to continue pursuing multi-million dollar public contracts regardless of the outcome of the DOH case.