Despite widespread shortages, Trump hasn’t come up with a plan to get medical supplies where needed

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WASHINGTON — With shortages of medical supplies for hospitals and doctors treating coronavirus patients intensifying nationwide, elected officials, hospital administrators and doctors are increasingly questioning whether the administration has a plan that can assist the country’s medical providers.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has never finalized a system for getting and distributing medical supplies in an emergency, federal records indicate.

And administration officials have refused to provide answers to questions from lawmakers, governors and health care leaders who are desperate for federal assistance with masks, ventilators and other equipment.

“We need these supplies for health care workers and for communities,” said Rep. Katie Porter, D-Calif., who has been pressing the administration for details about its supply plan. “Unfortunately, the administration doesn’t appear to have done the work.”

On Friday, President Donald Trump invoked the Defense Production Act, a Korean War-era law, to order General Motors to begin manufacturing ventilators at one of its auto plants after he had attacked the company on Twitter for not moving more quickly.

But the White House hasn’t detailed any broader strategy for addressing shortages of a host of other supplies, including respirator masks, gowns, face shields and other protective equipment.

A similar lack of preparation slowed the development and distribution of coronavirus testing kits in January and February, which continues to hinder the nation’s response to the widening pandemic.

Much of the debate around use of the Defense Production Act has focused on its potential to force companies like GM to make supplies deemed essential during a national emergency. Trump has repeatedly said he is confident U.S. manufacturers will voluntarily ramp up production of medical equipment, an argument echoed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

But the law also gives federal agencies the authority to place orders for critical materials and can give selected orders a higher priority than orders from private-sector companies or state and local governments.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has used this authority in past emergencies, including following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. For example, the agency helped a major railroad company get switches to rebuild railroad lines damaged by the storm by prioritizing the switch order and allowing the railroad company to get the switches from its supplier in 10 days instead of having to wait 90.

Many experts believe the Trump administration could similarly speed the delivery of scarce medical supplies to hospitals and medical providers that face the biggest shortages.

Instead, states and medical systems are increasingly competing against one another in a chaotic marketplace where everyone is scrambling to get the same supplies.

Neither the Department of Health and Human Services nor the Federal Emergency Management Agency would answer questions from the Los Angeles Times about federal planning to address the crisis.

Efforts to come up with a more effective system go back years. In 2012, President Barack Obama issued an executive order directing the Department of Health and Human Services and other agencies to develop systems for prioritizing supplies in an emergency and establishing standards for ordering and distributing the supplies.

But the federal health agency did not complete the regulations to develop this system, according to a June 2019 report to Congress by FEMA. Nor has the agency posted any regulations related to the act since then.

The lack of such a system doesn’t prevent the federal government from using its authority to help get critical supplies.

But a better developed system would help substantially, said Nick Vyas, executive director for the Marshall’s Center for Global Supply Chain Management at the University of Southern California.

“With a robust command-and-control system in place, it would be much easier and much more efficient to fight the battle the right way and with the right resources,” Vyas said.

He said that the administration should have stepped into the market last month to begin directing supplies. “The time to act was four weeks ago,” he said.

Instead, there has been widespread confusion as the shortages become more acute nationwide and the Trump administration continues to send mixed messages about what it will do.

On Tuesday, FEMA Administrator Peter Gaynor announced he was using the Defense Production Act to procure about 60,000 coronavirus test kits. Later that day, Trump appeared to reject this. And Tuesday evening, a FEMA spokeswoman said the agency was able to obtain the kits without employing the law.

It still unclear how FEMA developed the test kit order, as the agency is refusing to answer questions.

Porter said that another reason for a more transparent plan is to ensure that taxpayer money is being used wisely.

That concern was echoed by a group of Democratic senators who sent a strongly worded letter to Vice President Mike Pence on Thursday seeking details about the administration plan.

“The country is looking to the federal government to mobilize the rapid procurement, manufacturing and distribution of medical supplies critical to enabling our nation’s health care providers to mitigate this public health catastrophe,” the lawmakers wrote.


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