It wasn’t exactly a war zone. But when the Obama administration needed to rapidly set up a full-fledged medical operation at a Homestead center for unaccompanied migrant children, it turned to a private contractor whose prior experience included providing critical medical services at one of the largest US military bases in Iraq.
Today, the Homestead shelter is housing children who have been separated from their families. Kenneth Wolfe, a spokesman for Health and Human Services (HHS), told El Nuevo Herald that 391 girls and 801 boys were housed there, for a total of 1,192 children.
The federal government has signed contracts for more than $2 billion to shelter unaccompanied immigrant children. While many of the children’s shelters around the country are being run by nonprofit agencies, a handful of for-profit companies have also earned contracts. Cape Canaveral-based Comprehensive Health Services Inc. is one of them.
“During the last part of the Obama administration, they thought to make use of contractors’ capacity in a time of need to rapidly expand capacity,” said Mark Greenberg, former head of the Administration of Children and Families at the Department of Health and Human Services. He currently serves as a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute.
“When there had been sudden increases in the number of arriving unaccompanied children, and we had been dependent on existing grantees, there was a strong interest in trying to expand potential service providers for program,” he said.
In 2015, Comprehensive Health received a contract worth up to $388 million to provide staffing, medical support and medical equipment at “temporary shelters housing children who had entered the U.S. unaccompanied by a parent or legal guardian.”
Soon after, Comprehensive Health began operating in Homestead. And in an instant, that contract made Comprehensive Health the largest private contractor providing emergency and other relief services, according to independent site GovTribe, which tracks federal government contracts.
Earlier this year, the Trump administration quietly reopened the Homestead facility after it was closed in 2017. The government turned to Comprehensive Health to resume operations, awarding it a contract worth more than $50 million. In May, the administration bumped its initial order of 500 beds to 1,000; on June 26 it exercised a $9 million option to keep the facility running.
A spokesperson for Comprehensive Health declined to comment. On June 25, Comprehensive Health confirmed in a Tweet that it is providing “high quality medical services and humanitarian care to support the immigrant children who enter the shelters.”
In May, California-based for-profit Brookstone Emergency Services, also known as American Canyon Solutions, received a contract worth up to 13.2 million to help run the Homestead facility. Overall, Brookstone has received contracts valued at $215 million since 2015 to provide services at temporary migrant shelters.
Other for-profit providers include General Dynamics, best known as a defense contractor. Since 2015 it has received contracts worth up to a total of almost $40 million to provide “infrastructure” and “case coordination.”
Details about these contracts — including the exact nature of the services provided — were not immediately available. The Office of Refugee Resettlement says its contracts and grants are awarded competitively.
Among nonprofits, Southwest Key Programs in Texas has been awarded approximately $1.3 billion for its unaccompanied children’s shelters since 2015. San Antonio-based BCFS has been awarded more than $500 million.
Multiple companies and nonprofits operate shelters for unaccompanied migrant children, but the size of Comprehensive Health’s contracts makes it stand out. Founded in 1975, it specializes in medical responses during extreme events like hurricanes, wars or terrorist attacks, according to its website. The company was active in the wake of Sept. 11 and hurricanes Katrina and Rita, it says online.
The majority of its federal contracts — more than 235 — have been for medical employment screenings, such as drug tests, for public and private agencies, according to GovTribe records, which date the company’s federal awards back to 1983. Since 2011, it has received multiple contracts worth more than $400 million to provide medical care at U.S. military bases in Iraq via a subsidiary, according to USASpending.gov, a federal government website.
In 2016, Comprehensive Health moved its headquarters to Florida from Virginia after receiving $600,000 in state incentives from Tallahassee. That year, the company had more than 2,000 employees worldwide, according to a press release. The move was slated to create 150 new jobs and boost the Cape Canaveral region by $4.5 million.
The company has not been politically active, with no political action committees in its name, according to OpenSecrets, a nonprofit site that tracks money in politics. Federal Election Commission records show only small donations of less than $5,000 from company officers and employees.
According to Comprehensive Health’s website, the firm generates more than $100 million in revenues. Its current president, Gary G. Palmer, has been with the company for 14 years. Previously, he worked with Lockheed Martin in a business development unit across a range of sectors that included military products. In November, the company formed a Department of Defense subcommittee with the goal of winning more contracts from military contracts.
The company has not gone without legal troubles.
In 2012, the Miami Herald reported, an Arkansas man and woman sued a subsidiary of Comprehensive Health, claiming they’d been fired by the company after complaining of “substandard care” at Iraq’s Sather Air Force Base, now known as Baghdad Diplomatic Support Hospital. In their lawsuit, the two claimed a man died after a “critical care practitioner” botched the insertion of a breathing tube. The lawsuit was later settled.
In February 2017, the company paid a settlement of more than $3 million for knowingly double-billing the government after a whistle-blower flagged the incident, according to then-U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein. The company has said the double-billing was accidental.
The Miami Herald reported in June that an individual then facing drug charges was working at the Homestead facility caring for children. Comprehensive Health has declined to say whether he is or was an employee. And last fall, a former Homestead facility worker was charged with soliciting a minor. When asked whether that individual was employed by Comprehensive Health, a representative for the Department of Health and Human Service’s Office of the Inspector General declined to comment.
Largest contracts for shelters used for unaccompanied children (emergency and other relief services) since 2015
1) Comprehensive Health Services, Cape Canaveral, FL: $266.4 million
2) Brookstone Emergency Services (American Canyon Solutions), Murrieta, CA: $215.4 million
3) BCFS Health and Human Services, San Antonio, TX: $65.2 million *
4) AECOM International Development, Arlington, VA: $61.9 million
5) Southwest Key Programs, Inc., Austin, TX: $31.3 million *
Largest grants to nonprofits for shelters used for unaccompanied children (emergency and other relief services) since 2015
1) Southwest Key Programs, Inc.:, Austin, TX $1 billion
2) BCFS Health and Human Services, San Antonio, TX: $563 million
3) Heartland Human Care Services, Chicago, IL: $133.3 million
4) Cayuga Centers (Cayuga Home for Children), Auburn, NY: $106.7 million
5) The Children’s Village, Dobbs Ferry, NY: $70.1 million
Source: US Department of Health and Human Services
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