With the national stockpile of inventory of life-saving healthcare equipment getting dangerously close to zero, President Trump on Thursday signaled that he will leverage a key national security provision to order additional companies to produce ventilators.
Trump’s reluctance to employ the law known as the Defense Production Act (DPA) has puzzled many as the administration attempts to right the myriad early wrongs that allowed the novel coronavirus to spread within the nation’s borders — an unprecedented modern public health crisis expected to claim as many as 200,000 lives in the U.S.
“Today, I have issued an order under the Defense Production Act to more fully ensure that domestic manufacturers can produce ventilators needed to save American lives,” Trump said in a statement. “My order to the Secretary of Health and Human Services and the Secretary of Homeland Security will help domestic manufacturers like General Electric, Hill-Rom, Medtronic, ResMed, Royal Philips, and Vyaire Medical secure the supplies they need to build ventilators needed to defeat the virus.”
The order will enable Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar to use “any and all authority available” to steer production efforts.
“… The president is gonna use that DPA to make sure the American people and our healthcare professionals get the PPE, the medicines, everything we need,” White House advisor Peter Navarro said in the White House briefing Thursday
After much early confusion around the president’s willingness to invoke the DPA without actually putting it to use, Trump appeared to change course and on Friday wielded the law against General Motors, which had already announced its intention to start manufacturing ventilators in spite of a lack of federal guidance. That heel-turn came two days after Trump was poised to announce a deal with GM and ventilator maker Ventec Life Systems to produce up to 80,000 devices. The announcement was reportedly scuttled when the White House and FEMA balked at the effort’s $1 billion price tag.
Trump has repeatedly called the crisis-level demand for ventilators, masks and other medical supplies into question. “I have a feeling that a lot of the numbers that are being said in some areas are just bigger than they’re going to be,” Trump told Fox News host Sean Hannity last week. “I don’t believe you need 40,000 or 30,000 ventilators.” The president has also repeatedly questioned the nationwide shortage of N95 masks and other basic health protective gear, suggesting that in New York health facilities are somehow losing the masks or allowing them to be stolen, a false claim for which there is no evidence.
As states still compete for vital life-saving resources, federal orders through the DPA would force any private companies on the receiving end of an order to prioritize federal contracts. The law also allows the federal government to use its muscle to ensure that supply chains are able to produce and provide materials every step of the way. While much has been made of the law’s potency to mobilize supplies in the midst of a national crisis, the Trump administration will likely need to actively manage and coordinate with these newly tapped manufacturers to see such orders through.
In dragging its feet to issue orders through the DPA, Trump appeared to put full faith in the private sector to step up on their own without a directive from the White House. While some companies indeed did just that, those nascent production efforts are nowhere near meeting demand, and distribution issues are not resolved. With the outbreak threatening regions around the nation, many states forge ahead without vital life-saving supplies, as the acute health crisis unfolding in New York offers a glimpse of a potentially disastrous near-future.