Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Monday evening said that a White House initiative to airlift needed protective equipment to healthcare workers in the U.S. is redirecting the supplies to private companies, forcing states in desperate need of medical supplies to bid against one another, leading Pritzker and others to go directly to manufacturers.
"I hate the idea that I'm competing against other people in the United States, other governors even, to try to get what we need," Pritzker told PBS Newshour journalist Judy Woodruff. "But this is what President Trump has done to the country."
Gov @GovPritzker confirms that the federal ‘Air Bridge’ flights from China, organized by the White House taskforce, are bringing PPE back from China which are then turned over to private companies. The states then have to bid against each other to purchase from those companies. pic.twitter.com/QG62dWtQuc
— Josh Marshall (@joshtpm) April 7, 2020
According to Pritzker, President Donald Trump's "Project Airbridge" transportation scheme that delivers personal protective equipment (PPE) and other needed medical supplies to the U.S. from manufacturers in China is interrupting what should be a straightforward policy of getting equipment to the places which need it the most.
"We're bidding, unfortunately, for all of these items of equipment against the federal government and against the other states and against other countries, because what the White House has done is created—you know, they call this the air bridge, where they're bringing stuff back from China to the United States, and then they're delivering it to private companies in the United States, not to the states," said Pritzker. "And they're letting all of us bid against each other for those goods that are owned by the private companies."
As Common Dreams has reported, shortages of PPE and other needed medical supplies have been a flashpoint of controversy as frontline healthcare workers demand better protection and equipment.
Project Airbridge, which is transporting the supplies to the U.S. with the coordination of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), is instead delivering the product to a network of private companies—which are exempt from antitrust regulations for the duration of their role in distribution, according to a Justice Department memo (pdf)—which then resell the goods at a profit.
"This has been described, I think appropriately, as the wild, wild West," California Gov. Gavin Newsom said Sunday. "We are trying to organize in a more deliberative manner."
As CBS News reported:
Governors and hospitals have been sounding the alarm that they need more personal protective equipment, or PPE, for health care workers as they care for the growing number of coronavirus patients. For now, the Federal Emergency Management Agency will give the majority of supplies to the hard-hit states of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, while the rest of the supplies will go to nursing homes there and other high-risk areas in the U.S. Dozens of those flights are expected to take place over the next 30 days.
Trump senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, who heads the Office of American Innovation, is the White House point person for the project, which is being supported by FEMA's transportation task force and State Department task forces. Those entities are working alongside health care distributors, including Cardinal Health, McKesson, Henry Schein, Owens & Minor and Medlin.
"Moronic but consistent with American healthcare, whose primary purpose is to enrich private interests with the help of government," attorney Chase Madar said of the strategy. "'Healthcare' comes in a distant second."
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Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker said on March 27 that supplies destined for the commonwealth were seized at a New York City port by the federal government, leading his government to reassess how to understand access to supplies.
"People are spending hours and hours and hours trying to get this stuff here," said Baker. "Until the thing shows up here in the commonwealth of Massachusetts, it doesn't exist."
"Our first responders, healthcare workers, everybody deserves to have that gear," Baker added.
Baker on Thursday received a delivery of masks and other PPE from China via the Patriots football team plane and owner Robert Kraft, the result of a move by the Massachusetts governor to do an end run around the federal government after the seizure. A portion of the masks went to New York.
In a White House press conference April 2, Rear Admiral John Polowczyk defended the government's handoff of the supplies to private company, saying that Project Airbridge was "not here to disrupt a supply chain."
This is remarkable. The US has set up an airbridge for PPE & med supplies to the US from abroad. But in answer to question from @cbsnews @weijia the Admiral explains that this is going through private companies, which explains why states are having to bid to get the stuff. pic.twitter.com/eO646wAeNF
— Josh Marshall (@joshtpm) April 3, 2020
Polowczyk's reasoning did not sit well with Harvard professor Juliette Kayyem.
"They screwed up the one apparatus—supply chain delivery—that didn't need to be fixed," tweeted Kayyem.
Lawyer Emma Caterine opined on Twitter that the government's decision to give the equipment and supplies to private comanies is an example of the capitalist mismanagement that is exacerbating the coronavirus disaster.
"They tell you it's the free market," said Caterine. "That it's just natural for corporations to call the shots. It's not. It's a political choice backed by the full weight of state power. It's laws, military, and police protecting and serving property."
Pritzker, in a press conference Monday, told reporters that his state is looking for ways to get PPE and other necessary supplies directly from manufacturers, thereby completely bypassing the federal government.
"If we had relied upon the White House and its obligation to fulfill our needs from the [Strategic National Stockpile], our state and nearly every state in the United States would come up short and could not protect our health care workers and our first responders," said Pritzker. "But here's the good news: We haven't trusted what we were told by the White House."