The Washington Post argues that the White House should invoke the Defense Production Act (DPA) to fill the shortage of ventilators faced by hospitals hard-hit by the coronavirus. By putting a federal agency in charge of purchasing necessary medical equipment, the Post believes that states would be saved from a “procurement free-for-all” — which apparently means uncertain supply and high prices. Federal control won’t solve the supply problem. It’s likely to be made worse.
This is clear from the way the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS) has been managed during the early stage of the coronavirus crisis. According to the Department of Health and Human Resources, the SNS holds pharmaceuticals and medical supplies for use in a public health emergency severe enough to cause local supplies to run out.
In early March, states called on the SNS to release ventilators in preparation for a wave of coronavirus patients. Florida received all the emergency supplies it requested while other states receive only a fraction of their requests.
That might have been reasonable. Some states may have wanted to create their own stockpiles before an influx of patients while others were already dealing with a large and growing number who need resource-intensive treatment. Moreover, federal officials hold back some of their supplies under almost any circumstance for fear of running out if the crisis is more severe than expected.
But politics plays a role as well. Nicole Lurie ran the Office of Preparedness and Response, which is responsible for the SNS, in the Obama administration. She explained “If a governor jumps up and down and yells and screams, it gets attention… it probably helps to have a really loud megaphone.”
The Post is arguing for federal procurement to create the appearance of an orderly market. This is a way to ration scarce resources, but it cannot meet the needs of the health sector if our worst fears about the coronavirus epidemic are realized. For more on this, see my recent article here.
This article by Joseph Antos first appeared at the American Enterprise Institute.