Democrats Want to Federalize the Medical Supply Chain—What that Would Mean for Coronavirus Testing

Democrats are urging the commander-in-chief to do something they've criticized—even sued—him for doing in the past: use executive authority.

That's because amid a nationwide shortage of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and coronavirus test kits, congressional Democrats want to effectively force President Donald Trump to invoke the Defense Production Act (DPA). Their legislation to federalize the medical supply chain could help to alleviate the strains placed on states and local governments as swaths of the country begin to relax social distancing guidelines and reopen.

"If you've got 50 states competing for the same test kits, we're gonna end up with a s*** show," Lieutenant General Russel Honoré, who oversaw the military relief efforts in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, told Newsweek. "We federalize the f***out of everything... We do it all the time. We federalize dollars. We don't let every state make their own f***ng dollar."

Trump has used his authority under the wartime act for things like forcing some private companies to ramp up the production of PPE and preventing meatpacking plants from closing as workers in facilities across several states have contracted the virus.

But Trump has so far declined to do the same for testing, putting the brunt of the responsibility on states rather than the federal government. A "testing overview" and "testing blueprint" released by the White House this week laid out how states can "unlock their full capacity," as the president characterized it, by partnering with the private sector. The documents stated the federal government will be "[a]cting as supplier of last resort."

Critics argue he hasn't tapped into his presidential power enough to mend medical supply shortages and streamline the decentralized process. So Democrats on Capitol Hill are striving to do it for him by creating a civilian position appointed by the Secretary of Defense.

That person would have the full power of the DPA to oversee all manufacturing and distribution of medical supplies until the health crisis subsides and the national stockpiles are replenished, essentially usurping the president's authority to centralize the supply chain.

"We worry that the president is choosing profits over the health and safety of our citizens," Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told reporters on a call Wednesday, citing a March report suggesting Trump was hesitant to use the DPA after being lobbied by industry groups. "It's stunning that the president is not using the power that has been granted to him to save lives. It's perplexing as to why he's been so willing to talk tough but then not willing to use the authorities that have been given to him."

Democrats want federalize medical supply chain
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) answers questions during a press conference at the U.S. Capitol May 14, 2019, in Washington, D.C. Getty

The proposal is spearheaded by Democratic Senators Murphy, Debbie Stabenow (Mich.) and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (N.Y.). It's backed by all Democratic senators except for Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.). The companion version is expected to be presented in the House by Democratic Representatives. Katie Porter (Calif.), Jason Crow (Colo.), Elissa Slotkin (Mich.) and Tim Ryan (Ohio).

Although it's not expected to advance in the GOP-controlled Senate, the proposal would likely to undo strides by the Trump administration to prepare for the next health crisis. National exchange programs for PPE and ventilators are in the works that the White House hopes hospitals and medical facilities could tap into amid any calamity. But the Democrats' proposal would make the need for these exchanges "obsolete," according to a Senate staffer familiar with the legislation, who added that the exchanges "wouldn't be necessary" if the administration had not "failed to coordinate a national strategy for medical supplies and fully activate the DPA."

The U.S. has lacked the ability to produce enough testing kits so much so that public health experts, including officials on the White House coronavirus task force, said many states still lack the testing capability needed to safely reopen. The U.S. has conducted a little more than 6 million tests, averaging roughly 215,000 tests per day, according to the COVID Tracking Project.

But it hasn't prevented Trump and some of those around him from already declaring victory by exaggerating the country's testing capabilities. The U.S. trails other major countries in per capita testing, including Italy, Germany, Spain, Russia and Canada.

"We've tested more than every country combined," Trump claimed—incorrectly—on Tuesday. Three countries combined—Russia, Germany and Italy—have tested more, research showed. "We are way ahead on testing. We are the best in the world on testing. We've tested much more than anybody else, times two."

Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser, labeled the federal government's coronavirus response on Fox News a "great success story" Wednesday, despite the U.S. topping 1 million confirmed cases the day prior and reporting more deaths had occurred than in the Vietnam War.

One of the problems with testing that federalizing the supply chain could solve is the lack of swabs, which are patented and specialized, explained Bob Kocher, an Obama administration official who worked on health care and economic policy. He said America producing its own test kits, particularly swabs, would be a multi-pronged benefit to the economy while cutting down on cost, shipping delays and foreign dependence on other countries' medical manufacturing, such as China.

Lawmakers from both parties have long advocated for the U.S. to move away from its reliance on pharmaceuticals and other medical supplies from China. Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) introduced a bipartisan plan in March.

Democrats want federalize medical supply chain
A phlebotomist processes specimens of people getting tested for coronavirus antibodies at the Refuah Health Center on April 24 in Spring Valley, New York. Photo by Yana Paskova/Getty

Another example of America's foreign dependence lies with Italy. A main manufacturer of the swabs based in the country's northern region, Copan Diagnostics Inc., has worked overtime to pump out the long, skinny sticks that have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Everybody on Earth is trying to get the same thing, from the same place, at the same time," Kocher told Newsweek. "We're good at manufacturing these types of supplies. We definitely have the ability to make these supplies in America."

Another purpose of federalizing the supply chain would be to replenish the Strategic National Stockpile. Trump's supporters—and Trump himself—point the finger at his predecessor for not replenishing the depleted pile of N95 masks after the H1N1 outbreak in 2009. Conversely, the president's critics blame him for failing to restock the supply in his first three years of office after warnings from experts.

But the former head of the agency who oversaw the stockpile, Dr. Ali Khan, told Newsweek it is wasted effort to blame either administration.

"Before we talk about replenishing, it gets to what is the purpose long term?... The stockpile was not designed for a pandemic of this nature," he said. "I don't think we can ever buy enough for a $3 trillion health care system, enough of everything for any size pandemic. This is not the big one. A big one would be the 1918 flu that killed 700,000."

The stockpile has always been configured for surviving biological or chemical terrorism, Dr. Khan explained, who's now at the University of Nebraska Medical Center's College of Public Health. If the government and its leaders wish to reconfigure the nation's supplies stowed away at secret locations across the country—which bare enormous costs and maintenance—he said now is the time to do it.

"Do they want to be better prepared for a pandemic of this nature? And how prepared do they want to be, recognizing you could never be prepared for as big of a pandemic as there ever could be? What is the role of various sectors of the government in that preparedness?" Dr. Khan said. "I think we should be having that conversation now."