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Washington, DC, June 9, 2020 – United States Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), and Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) formally requested an investigation of “Project Air Bridge,” the Trump administration’s opaque medical supply chain management project, and released new documents and information from the six major medical wholesalers or distribution companies involved in the project. Senators Warren and Blumenthal opened an investigation into Project Air Bridge in April after multiple reports of seizures of supplies by federal officials, political favoritism, cronyism, and price-gouging via third-party sellers.
The medical suppliers responded to the senators’ request and their responses reveal several new insights into Project AirBridge. But because the responses also leave outstanding a number of key questions, Warren, Schumer, and Blumenthal formally requested the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee (PRAC) to conduct a detailed investigation of the program, using authority granted to it under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.
“Our investigation found Project Air Bridge – like the broader Trump Administration response to coronavirus – has been marked by delays, incompetence, confusion, ethics questions, and secrecy across multiple Federal agencies and in the White House,” said Senator Warren. “Taxpayers have shelled out tens of millions of dollars on this secretive project and they deserve to know whether it actually helped get critical supplies to the areas most in need.”
“The Trump administration’s Project AirBridge is yet another failure in a long line of inadequate pandemic responses, this time delivering a deeply flawed, disorganized system that failed to effectively supply our medical personnel with promised equipment and PPE,” said Leader Schumer. “So many key questions remain unaddressed-including whether potential ethics violations by private sector officials occurred, why the administration failed to include price gouging protections and why the administration failed to ensure that PPE was distributed where it was needed most. The American people want and deserve real answers. We urge the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee to thoroughly investigate the administration’s efforts.”
“Cronyism and incompetence seemingly led this taxpayer-funded boondoggle to tragically misallocate scarce medical supplies and PPE. Jared Kushner’s pet Airbridge project was a “bridge to nowhere” for health providers most in need. Our investigation shows how secrecy and lies were Airbridge hallmarks, following faithfully the Trump model for pandemic response. This investigation’s alarming revelations should spur an in depth, detailed inquiry- and action- by the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee,” said Senator Blumenthal.
The issues raised by the senators’ investigation include:
The origin of, and chain of command involved in, Project Air Bridge. Information obtained from the suppliers confirms reports that efforts to distribute personal protective equipment (PPE) leaned heavily on the involvement of private sector volunteers (using personal email addresses), several with connections to Jared Kushner. To the extent that outside officials were involved, it may raise questions about federal ethics law, conflicts of interest, federal records law, or adherence to federal guidance and rulemaking standards.
Responses from the medical suppliers indicate that a non-governmental volunteer named Dennis Robb was a lead facilitator early on for Project Air Bridge and that, later, “a friend” of Jared Kushner’s within the government was a primary contact. One company reported that it was concerned about being asked, early in the effort, to provide “pretty darn sensitive” information to individuals with private emails at the Boston Consulting Group, a private consulting firm.
The effectiveness of Project Air Bridge in getting supplies to the areas most in need. Several of the medical suppliers (Cardinal, McKesson, and Medline) provided copies of key, but previously non-public, Memorandums of Agreement (MOAs) that they signed with the government. It appears from the MOAs that suppliers had complete discretion about how to distribute supplies across hotspot counties designated by HHS and FEMA; for example, nothing in the MOAs appears to prevent a supplier from sending all of its supplies designated for hotspots to just a single customer in one of the hotspots. While the administration touted Project Air Bridge as a way to distribute supplies to those areas most in need, the Project Air Bridge agreements guarantee no such thing. The administration has also not publicly provided detailed estimates on the amount of PPE delivered by Project Air Bridge, making it impossible to determine whether it was successful in prioritizing the hardest-hit areas.
Limited amount of supplies delivered. Public reports indicate that Project Air Bridge had a limited effect on mitigating PPE shortages. Nearly two-thirds of health-care workers reported experiencing shortages of N95 respirator masks, the most needed PPE item. But it appears that Project Air Bridge has had a negligible impact on the supply of N95s: it has only delivered four hundredths of one percent (0.04%) of the number of N95 masks that HHS said in March the U.S. would need. N95 masks have only constituted about a tenth of one percent (0.13%) of all supplies delivered through Project Air Bridge. In contrast, 87% of supplies transported have been gloves.
Although the suppliers did not provide detailed information on the amount of supplies that have been expedited by Project Air Bridge, some information they provided appears to confirm that shipments from Project Air Bridge did not constitute a significant portion of their PPE deliveries. Owens & Minor told the senators that “Project Airbridge flights have transported approximately 320 million units of PPE for Owens & Minor, which the Company in turn distributed to its U.S. customers. To put this in perspective, since February 1, 2020, Owens & Minor has delivered over three billion units of PPE to U.S. health care providers.”
Seized orders of supplies. The senators asked the medical suppliers whether they had any knowledge of extensive public reports that the federal government had been seizing orders of medical supplies placed by states and healthcare providers. The medical suppliers claimed that they have not, to their knowledge, distributed any seized medical supplies, leaving open questions for the Administration about the nature and extent of these seizures.
Equipment pricing. The senators asked the medical suppliers to shed light on reports of extremely high costs for PPE faced by states and healthcare providers. The MOAs provided by the suppliers reveal that suppliers were required to “distribute the FEMA-Directed PPE to its customers at a reasonable price (i.e., the price that a prudent and competent buyer would be willing to pay given available data on market conditions).” However, the medical suppliers reported that they did not know how the government could enforce that requirement, since officials never requested pricing information. The senators found this particularly problematic because the Department of Justice announced its intention not to challenge the suppliers in this collaboration in part because it would enable the suppliers to “help FEMA and HHS understand…(and) negotiate competitive prices.”