Medical Meddling

Feds divert medical supplies from PeaceHealth

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

A delivery of test kit materials that would have allowed Bellingham’s St. Joseph hospital and other PeaceHealth medical facilities in the Northwest to run COVID-19 tests faster were seized and diverted by the federal government to the East Coast, PeaceHealth reported.

Hospital and clinic officials in seven states described similar seizures over the past week. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is not publicly reporting the acquisitions, despite the outlay of millions of dollars of taxpayer money, nor has the administration detailed how it decides which supplies to seize and where to reroute them, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Currently, only half of the supplies FEMA has procured or transported into the United States are distributed to areas considered to be “hot spots” by medical experts, with the other half left to commercial distributors to deliver according to their own supply chains and contractual relationships. Earlier this month, the Department of Defense transferred more than five million N95 respirators to FEMA, which then turned them over to private companies for distribution, rather than working with state emergency management offices to coordinate delivery to areas with the greatest need.

While FEMA officials initially denied the PeaceHealth seizures, an April 8 press release from FEMA describes the agency’s efforts to redirect the medical supply chain, providing 50 percent of to hospitals, clinics and medical professionals with the remainder directed to private commercial distributors.

Materials seized from PeaceHealth include vital test kit materials that are needed to run in-house analyzer machines, PeaceHealth Manager of Public Affairs Jeremy Rush told The Bellingham Herald in an email.

Those machines were purchased specifically for COVID-19 testing in PeaceHealth hospitals, Rush reported.

“Our analyzers remain idle, while we continue to send specimens to outside laboratory testing sites, prioritizing labs based on the shortest turnaround times,” Rush wrote.

If PeaceHealth hospitals had received the test kit materials and been able to do in-house testing, Rush wrote, then it more quickly could rule out patients that tested negative for COVID-19. That would have allowed the hospital to conserve personal protective equipment at a greater rate.

“Our community is deeply concerned to hear recent assertions that vitally needed COVID testing supplies intended for Bellingham and St. Joseph’s Hospital may have been seized by federal authorities and re-directed to another part of the country,” Bellingham City Council noted in a letter to congressional representatives. Their letter was additionally signed by Mayor Seth Fleetwood on Monday.

“Reports from PeaceHealth, numerous other health care systems, and government officials from across the United States, indicate that our concern regarding federal confiscation of needed medical equipment and supplies is likely not an isolated incident,” Council members wrote.

Calling the seizure of needed medical equipment and supplies are alarming and unacceptable, Bellingham officials noted that “supply shortages are putting lives at risk in every community across the country. Any rational reason to re-direct crucial supplies from one community to another should be explained without delay, fully and publicly,” Council members wrote.

Reports of seizures drew a rebuke from congressional Democrats. U.S. Senators Patty Murray, the top Democrat on the Senate health committee, and Maria Cantwell joined every member of the Senate Democratic caucus in raising serious concerns about the Trump Administration’s reliance on private companies to distribute desperately needed medical supplies during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are concerned that the federal government is using taxpayer dollars to bring supplies to the United States, just to have six private distributors step in and sell those very supplies to desperate states and health care systems for a profit,” the senators wrote. “In the private market, states, federal agencies, hospitals, and other entities must all compete for the same supplies, where resources are allocated according to existing commercial relationships or the highest bidder instead of greatest need.”

FEMA has refused to provide details about how these determinations are made or why it is choosing to seize some supply orders and not others. Administration officials also will not say what supplies are going to what states.

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