Medical companies warn PPE, critical equipment situation 'not sustainable,' House memo says

The firms shared their concerns with a congressional oversight panel.
Image: Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) patients are treated in Houston
A medical worker puts on protective equipment at United Memorial Medical Center in Houston on June 29, 2020.Callaghan O'Hare / Reuters

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By Heidi Przybyla

As coronavirus infections continue to spike across the U.S, six of the nation’s largest medical equipment distribution companies are raising “troubling concerns” about the Trump administration’s coordination of critical supplies to COVID-19 hot spots, according to a memo outlining a key House committee’s discussions with the companies.

New York Democratic Rep. Carolyn Maloney, who chairs the House Oversight Committee, submitted the memo Thursday to the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus ahead of its hearing on the administration’s efforts to procure, stockpile and distribute critical supplies during the pandemic. The memo was provided to NBC News.

In the memo, Maloney wrote that as the pandemic flares anew in several states, the companies are cautioning that the supply of personal protective equipment for medical staff is not meeting demand and that prices for raw materials have increased “dramatically.”

“Despite months of effort, there are still severe shortages of PPE and critical medical equipment, and the Trump administration has no coherent strategy to address these deficiencies,” Maloney wrote. The memo refers to PPE generally, but specifically warns that raw material for surgical gowns is “unavailable at any price.”

The companies that shared concerns with the committee include major suppliers, manufacturers and distributors to hospitals, medical offices and nursing homes: Cardinal Health, Concordance Healthcare Solutions, Henry Schein, McKesson, Medline, and Owens & Minor.

The Health Industry Distributors Association (HIDA), a conduit between the Trump administration and medical companies, told committee staff it has been imploring the administration to create a national supply chain for months.

According to the Maloney memo, Medline directly asked the administration for a federal “umbrella” but “politics has gotten in the way of that.”

The companies told committee staff that obtaining personal protective equipment for U.S. medical personnel and patients under current conditions is “not sustainable,” Maloney wrote.

The White House referred NBC News to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for comment on the memo and the companies’ concerns.

FEMA press secretary Lizzie Litzow said the task force has “ supplied critical PPE to save lives in our nation, and we worked with governors from every state and territory to provide PPE that otherwise would not have been available in our fight against this disease.”

This includes 249 flights delivering over 5.3 million N95 respirators, 937 million gloves, 122 million surgical masks, 63.3 million gowns, and 2.6 million face/eye shields.

For his part, Trump, in a press briefing Thursday, claimed U.S. companies “have all the equipment they need.”

The memo outlines the companies’ repeated requests to the White House Supply Chain Task Force for a coordinated federal response, saying they lack the data to obtain the best prices and prioritize supplies.

Instead of creating a federal clearinghouse for purchasing and distribution, a project led by Trump’s son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner known as “Project Airbridge” was created to provide free air transportation for certain companies importing PPE.

The memo says several companies told the committee that the Trump Administration “spent many weeks pressing them to buy PPE directly from one particular Chinese company” — BYD, a Chinese electric car and battery manufacturer heavily subsidized by the Chinese government — but that they declined because the administration was asking them to “purchase at a price that was fairly high.”

The White House has for months resisted calls from the nation’s top medical associations and providers to coordinate the purchase and distribution of supplies including protective gear and ventilators. The head of the American Medical Association and others called on Trump to invoke the Defense Production Act to coordinate supply and demand, including prioritizing hot spots and safeguarding against price gouging.

Attempts by states and medical providers to procure supplies through Chinese brokers has “led to a series of problems,” the memo argues, such as contractors failing to report back the price of PPE paid for by U.S. taxpayers.

The Supply Chain Task Force was created at the end of March, but the administration continues to place individual states in charge of procuring PPE, leading to bidding wars and shortages that endanger health care workers.

HIDA members said they were raising alarms directly with federal agencies as early as January 30.

FEMA, meanwhile, has been unable to provide evidence of any procurement efforts prior to March 19, even as coronavirus was raging through New York City and other hot spots at the time.

“Only the federal government has the data and the authority to provide this strategic direction to the supply chain and the healthcare system,” the president of HIDA wrote in a March 28 letter to the administration, according to the memo.

In a June 18 briefing with committee staff, the memo states, FEMA officials said the administration is playing no role in directing PPE to specific hotspots. The officials also said the Kushner transport project is now “winding down.”

While FEMA officials conceded “the supply chain is still not stable,” they claimed distributors can now “do it on their own,” the memo states.