DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Here in the United States, President Trump says the federal government's procurement and distribution of vital medical supplies is now, quote, a fine-tuned machine. But many hospitals and governors say that is simply not the case, that they are still struggling to get what they need. As NPR's Eric Westervelt reports, there is growing pressure on the White House.
ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: The White House sent Pentagon logistics expert John Polowczyk to FEMA to take charge of the federal supply chain. The Navy rear admiral says his FEMA team has worked hard to add much-needed volume to the normal supply mechanisms to funnel some medical supplies the government procures to be sold and delivered through the private sector.
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JOHN POLOWCZYK: I'm not here to disrupt a supply chain and say, look; these six distributors - six, seven - they have 6- to 700 warehouses. They have trucks to go to the hospital door every day. We're bringing product in. They're filling orders for hospitals, nursing homes, like normal.
WESTERVELT: But some governors and critics say the White House distribution approach, mixing federal and state entities with private health care companies, continues to create confusion, anger and state bidding wars that waste money and time.
RUSSEL HONORE: It's not [expletive] working. You can talk [expletive] all you want at the podium at the White House. It's not working.
WESTERVELT: That's retired Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, who led Task Force Katrina - that's the team that coordinated military relief to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast after FEMA was widely seen as bungling the initial hurricane response. General Honore says there are key fixes the Trump administration could implement right now to more clearly centralize the purchase and distribution of resources and close the supply gap with states. That's needed, he says, not just for vital gear but for distribution of a vaccine when one becomes available.
HONORE: That's a tactic we could do - lock it all down. That's exactly why we have the Defense Production Act - to take control of the supply chain as well as the manufacturing chain. It's like amateur hour in the [expletive] White House.
WESTERVELT: Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington, the first state hit hard by the coronavirus, says it's not enough for the White House to merely pressure companies. He told NBC's "Meet The Press" it's ludicrous the Trump administration still hasn't unleashed the full force of the Defense Production Act.
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JAY INSLEE: We need to nationally mobilize, using the defense procurement - or production act so that we can get these companies...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah.
INSLEE: ...Instead of making cup holders, start making visors, start making test kits.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Right.
INSLEE: We don't have enough test kits by far in my state or anywhere in the United States.
WESTERVELT: Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and others have called repeatedly for the White House to create a czar, preferably a top military official, to oversee the production and disbursement of vital medical equipment. The White House has dismissed that idea, saying the FEMA-appointed admiral is doing a fine job. FEMA officials present and past say some of the criticism here is unfair; the agency simply has never faced a 50-state disaster.
DANIEL KANIEWSKI: This is a huge challenge, and for FEMA or the federal government to just take over the private sector supply chain would be a very daunting challenge.
WESTERVELT: That's Daniel Kaniewski, who until February was FEMA's No. 2 official. He says the agency is not a first responder - wasn't built to be and neither is the national strategic stockpile.
KANIEWSKI: And that was intended to be a stopgap measure, not an end-all solution. In other words, it was meant to be put in place for the immediate response until the supply chains could catch up and meet the overall demand.
WESTERVELT: For his part, Gen. Russel Honore is skeptical this administration will ever take tighter control of those supply chains. So the retired three-star says it's now up to hospitals and states to swap supplies. We have to adapt and overcome, he says, as we would in any war.
Eric Westervelt, NPR News.
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