Medical Supplies Free-for-All Has States Lashing Out at FEMA

Daniel Flatley, Polly Mosendz and Vincent Del Giudice

(Bloomberg) -- The fierce competition for crucial medical supplies is fueling confusion and suspicions between the states and federal government over conflicting priorities and drawing allegations of political favoritism by the Trump administration.

In Colorado, the tension boiled over when the state tried to secure ventilators for an expected spike in critically ill patients.

Colorado’s Democratic governor, Jared Polis, had made a direct plea to Vice President Mike Pence late last month for help in securing 10,000 ventilators and millions of masks and other protective equipment. When that request went unfulfilled, the state bought 500 ventilators from a private contractor.

But the Federal Emergency Management Agency also needed the ventilators. The agency used its authority to jump to the front of the line, according to Colorado officials, and purchased the equipment.

“Before the ventilators could get shipped, FEMA superseded Colorado,” said Representative Diana DeGette, a Democrat representing the Denver area. “They took those 500 ventilators and said they were putting them in the national stockpile.”

Exasperated Governors

It’s a situation being played out around the country as governors complain of shortages, delays and confusing demands as they try to supply hospitals beset by critically ill patients.

A report by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform this week said the federal government had failed to distribute enough personal protective equipment and ventilators to meet states’ demands and that the strategic national stockpile of those supplies has been depleted.

With the federal supply system leaving shortfalls, governors are planning to band together to procure what their states need without competing against each other. A consortium has already been created in the Midwest, bringing together the buying power of Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said he’s considering going through the National Governors Association to create a wider group.

A spokesperson for FEMA said that the agency was not commandeering or re-routing supplies in the U.S. and would work with companies and states if a company cancels a state contract in favor of a federal one. But the system gives the agency preference when supplies are short.

“Under the Defense Production Act, FEMA gets to go to the head of the line,” said Craig Fugate, who was the FEMA administrator under President Barack Obama. “The only way I know of to make that less painful is to be as fully transparent as you can of where the demand is and where you’re getting stuff.”

Colorado’s situation also is tinged with election-year politics. Senator Cory Gardner, one of the most vulnerable Republican incumbents up for re-election in November, called President Donald Trump to ask for help. In short order, the president tweeted Wednesday that the government would be sending Colorado 100 ventilators, specifically at Gardner’s request.

DeGette said in an interview that she had been trying for several weeks to get a response from the administration about how scarce medical resources are being allocated amid a national shortage. She said the exchange between Gardner and Trump only added more confusion to the situation.

“If a Republican senator calls the president up does that mean he just gets some?” DeGette said. “And then the president tweets out ‘good job?’ That doesn’t seem to be according to any kind of a process. It just seems political to me.”

White House spokesman Judd Deere said questions or speculation about political motives in dealing with state requests is “outrageous.”

“This is about saving lives and the Trump administration has been working with governors and their teams since January on Covid-19 coordination,” Deere said. “Every level of government needs to deliver data-driven solutions and that is what we are doing in partnership.”

Although there’s no evidence that politics is affecting decisions, Trump has done little to dispel such perceptions.

He’s tangled with Cuomo, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker, Washington Governor Jay Inslee and Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, among others, who have criticized the federal response.

All are Democrats.“I want them to be appreciative,” Trump said of the states. “The governors have been really good except for a couple. And with them it’s just political.”

Gardner said he knew Polis had been searching for ventilators, as had FEMA, and that he talked to Trump about Colorado’s needs.

“We’re going to continue to work with the president for more and continue to meet Colorado’s needs, but I think it’s just a sign that we are fighting for Colorado and we’re standing up for all of our states in this Covid-19 response.”

Deborah Birx, the State Department immunologist advising the White House’s coronavirus task force, said that decisions about which states receive ventilators and other equipment and at what quantity are determined on a case-by-case basis.

“There are some states that have lots of ventilators and there’s other states that in proportion to their population or by cases of Covid, have less,” she said when asked about the situation in Colorado at Wednesday’s coronavirus briefing. “I’m sure Denver and Colorado fit into that model.”

‘Terrific Senator’

Trump, though, was eager to tout his own intervention.

“I just sent 100 ventilators to Colorado, and that was great,” he said at the same briefing. “A senator there who is a terrific senator, Cory and -- Cory Gardner -- and he called me last night. He said, “Could you get 100 ventilators for Colorado?” And we just sent them out.”

Initial projections indicated Colorado would need 10,000 ventilators, but state officials says that’s since been revised to closer to 5,000. The state has about 1,700 currently.

Colorado has received the 100 ventilators from FEMA, said Micki Trost, a public information officer at the state’s emergency operations center in Centennial. Trost said that so far the state placed formal orders for 1,000 from the federal stockpile.

An administration official said Colorado and several states have scaled back requests for equipment as worst-case scenarios have given way to more accurate projections based on data. The White House is working with state officials to help them manage the situation, the official said.

DeGette said one of the biggest difficulties for state authorities is a lack of transparency on criteria for what’s available and where it’s going.

“How many ventilators do we have in the stockpile? How many are we getting in? Where are we sending them and what are our criteria for sending them? That’s what we need to know,” she said. “The administration is holding all of that very close to their chest. They won’t give us any of those details.”

Colorado’s other senator, Democrat Michael Bennet, said in a tweet that FEMA and the Department of Health and Human Services should “get out of the way and stop commandeering supplies.” The episode with ventilators in the state illustrated the “lack of strategy and proper cohesion during this crisis.”

Polis has criticized FEMA for “jumping the line” for gear, but has declined to characterize the process by which the state got the equipment.

“You’re really not going to get my read on it because I’m not going to do political analysis,” he said at a news conference. “I am here to celebrate any ventilators that arrive in our state and of course we’re grateful for 100 ventilators.”

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