Five million face masks ordered by the Veterans Health Administration to protect staff at the department’s hospitals and clinics were taken by the Federal Emergency Management Agency for the Strategic National Stockpile, a top official told The Washington Post.
“I had 5 million masks incoming that disappeared,” said Dr. Richard Stone, the executive in charge of managing the nation’s largest health care system with 1,255 facilities that serve more than 9 million veterans. He told the Post that FEMA instructed vendors with protective equipment ordered by the Veterans Administration to send the shipments instead to the stockpile.
“The supply system was responding to FEMA,” Stone, a former Army deputy surgeon general, told the Post. “I couldn’t tell you when my next delivery was coming in.” Veterans health care facilities were going through about 200,000 masks a day, according to Stone.
Stone acknowledged the problem after Veterans Administration officials had denied their facilities were grappling with shortages even amid mounting complaints from health care professionals.
After an appeal from Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie to FEMA, the agency provided the VA with 500,000 masks this week, FEMA officials said in a statement to the Post. FEMA officials did not address the issue of diverting supplies ordered for veterans to the national stockpile.
A statement from FEMA to HuffPost said the agency has a good working working relationship with the VA staff, and has provided more than 4.3 million various types of respirator masks, 1 million facial/surgical masks, 1.5 million gloves, and 14,000 face shields to VA facilities across the country.
The statement did not specifically address the issue of the 5 million masks ordered by the Veterans Health Administration. But FEMA spokeswoman Janet Montesi said that the agency “does not, has not and will not divert orders of PPE [personal protective equipment] from our federal, state and local partners, nor do we have the legal authority to do so.”
But other hospitals — and governors — have complained that FEMA is hijacking equipment ordered by communities, rather than providing much-needed supplies, which officials had been counting on the agency to do.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer — a Democrat who President Donald Trump has frequently targeted because of what he calls her “complaints” — revealed last month that vendors with whom her state had contracted for desperately needed medical equipment were told “not to send stuff,” on orders from the Trump administration.
Several hospitals in seven states surveyed by the Los Angeles Times complained that FEMA officials were showing up unannounced and seizing their supplies, leaving them desperately short and uncertain about where to turn for more equipment.
PeaceHealth, a 10-hospital system in Washington, Oregon and Alaska, had a shipment of testing supplies confiscated. “It’s incredibly frustrating,” CEO Richard DeCarlo told the newspaper.
FEMA also seized 500 ventilators ordered by Colorado this month, according to state officials. Trump then restored 100 of them, apparently as an opportunity to give a shout out to GOP Sen. Cory Gardner, who’s in the middle of a tough reelection campaign in the state.
Trump has ordered states to get their own supplies, but once the supplies are in the pipeline, they’re often seized by the federal government.
Trump’s son-in-law, senior White House adviser Jared Kushner announced at a coronavirus press briefing early this month that the emergency stores were “our” stockpile — and not the states’. The website for the stockpile, however, pointedly said supplies were for the states. The site was quickly changed after Kushner spoke to conform with what he said.
This story has been updated with a statement from FEMA to HuffPost.
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