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Toby Talbot, Associated Press
In this Jan. 31, 2012 photo, Vermont's new 20-bed pop-up portable hospital is seen in Essex Junction, Vt. The owner of a Vermont company that makes modular mobile hospitals is upset the state Health Department bought a mobile hospital from an out-of-state competitor.

MONTPELIER, Vt. — Vermont's top public health official said Friday he was eager to work with a St. Johnsbury business that manufactures mobile hospital units that are being used by military and civilian customers around the country and worldwide.

Dr. Harry Chen said his department bought a $157,000, 20-bed pop up emergency hospital from an out-of-state company because it was identical to another portable hospital purchased two years ago by the Central Vermont Hospital in Berlin for use in a public health emergency, such as an outbreak of pandemic flu.

He says the two units, which would likely be set up by volunteers in an emergency, need to be the same to minimize possibilities that mistakes could be made during setup.

"From an emergency management perspective you want to make sure people are trained and well versed in how to set up the hospital," Chen said. Having different units would require "twice as much training and more than twice the likelihood something would go wrong."

Two years ago when the Berlin hospital was looking to buy the portable hospital it did contact Mobile Medical, but their unit was 40 percent more expensive, Chen said.

"This sole source contract went through all the channels," Chen said. "We followed all the procedures necessary to do so."

Rick Cochran, the CEO of Mobile Medical, a 17-year-old business that employs just over 50 people at its facility on the edge of St. Johnsbury, said buying an out-of-state product wasn't consistent with the state's stated desire to encourage local businesses.

"We make such an effort on 'Buy Vermont,'" he said. "You've got all these 'buy Vermont commercials then in the midst here's the state doing precisely the opposite. I find that unfortunate."

Cochran, who met with Chen on Thursday in Montpelier, said Central Vermont officials did not contact his company before they bought the first emergency hospital two years ago.

"What they compared was our military product set against what would be considered a commercial application of that shelter. We now have that commercial variant. We now have a little simpler lower cost system that would be compatible to theirs," Cochran said. "But that apples to apples comparison has never been made, ever, not CVH not the health department."

But Chen said the health department was considering similar purchases in the future and he was looking forward to working with Cochran and Mobile Medical.

"He makes a wonderful product. From my perspective if we can get what we need and get value for it, it's almost a no brainer to buy locally," Chen said.