The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) on Tuesday confirmed the Trump Administration would invoke the Defense Production Act to procure COVID-19 testing kits, face masks, and other necessary medical equipment.
The Defense Production Act (DPA), enacted in 1950 in response to the start of the Korean War, allows the president to require businesses to fulfill orders deemed necessary for national defense; to establish mechanisms to allocate materials, services, and facilities to promote national defense; and to control the civilian economy so that critical materials are available for defense needs.
In 2011, President Barack Obama invoked the DPA to force telecom companies to submit information to the Commerce Department regarding their use of foreign-made hardware and software as part of an effort to fight Chinese espionage.
This time around, the DPA would be used to obtain medical supplies and get them to New York City and other places before hospitals become overwhelmed. Ford Motor Company has already started to help, even without federal orders. The company is working with GE and 3M to make ventilators, air purifying respirators, and face shields.
President Trump invoked the DPA last week but has resisted activating the statue, arguing that state governors should be responsible for buying their own supplies. “America is not a country based on nationalizing our businesses,” said Trump. “Call a person over in Venezuela…How did nationalization of their businesses work out? Not too well.”
Using the DPA would give the federal government massive bargaining power over suppliers, allowing the government to obtain medical equipment at much lower costs than could be achieved by individual states or hospitals. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said his administration has already overpaid to secure desperately-needed medical supplies.
“Even the most conservative political theories recognize that governments do sometimes have to take directive actions and markets alone cannot solve these problems,” says Mildred Solomon, president of the bioethics-focused Hastings Center.
Nearly 1,400 bioethicists and health leaders have signed a petition, organized by Hastings, demanding that Trump use the DPA to obtain coronavirus supplies.
“[Trump] doesn’t want to do it because companies will make more money if they gouge prices than if the government is taking over,” argues economist Dean Baker. “You’re going to produce these masks or respirators and will pay you the cost plus 10% – that’s less money for them. There’s no reason why Congress can’t put the orders in the legislation.”
Government estimates suggest the US will need a minimum of 3.5 million masks. The American Hospital Associations predicts we will need 790,000 additional ventilators, which cost as much as $50,000 each.
“President Trump should be using the DPA to ensure we have enough ventilators and other medical equipment to deal with this crisis,” says Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA). “This will take a wartime-like response. Congress should appropriate up to $75 billion for this purpose…We need to give the President the funds to get ventilators and masks in bulk to meet the needs of our time.”
On Tuesday, House Democrats added $3 billion in funding for the DPA in their version of the coronavirus stimulus package. A similar package that included billions of dollars to help businesses, hospitals, and working Americans cope with the economic impact of the coronavirus was rejected by Senate Democrats on Monday.
In the meantime – as politicians debate the specifics of legislation – healthcare workers warn that a widespread lack of personal protective equipment could magnify the scope of the pandemic.
“Clearly, the nation’s health facilities are still not ready and are in even worse shape than before in some respects to handle COVID-19,” warns Bonnie Castillo, executive director of National Nurses United. “We need to act now and act fast.”
Up to 9% of COVID-19 cases in Italy are healthcare workers.