The ARP specifically invokes the Defense Production Act for the production and distribution of medical supplies in response to the pandemic. It does this via Section 4001. COVID-19 emergency medical supplies enhancement.
This title would expend up to $10 billion both for medical supplies and equipment as well as for responding to public health emergencies. The money for supplies would remain eligible for use through September 30, 2025. Money for other response to the pandemic remains available until September 30, 2022 for fighting COVID-19. After that date, monies for emergency response can be used by the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) on response to, “any pathogen that the President has determined has the potential for creating a public health emergency.”
This is one of several areas where the bill foresees spending this money up to four and a half years from now, or in some cases even later. We find it puzzling that any emergency need to purchase medical equipment could possibly be foreseen several years after the pandemic is expected to be over and life returned to relative normal. And $10 billion of your tax dollars is real money, even in Washington. Yes, we agree that the pandemic is a bona fide emergency. But let’s not abuse the emergency spending system. Wouldn’t it be better to deal with future pathogens in their own right, not as some COVID-19 afterthought?
We have long advocated for better budgeting for disasters of all types. Moving forward lawmakers may need to build into the budget improved processes and increased funds for responding to potential future global pandemics. Public health emergencies may have similarities, but a slush fund for the HHS Secretary, which will be all too tempting to pay for non-emergency needs, is the wrong approach.
Medical supplies and equipment are listed in the legislation and all appear to be fitting uses of the authorities of the Defense Production Act.
- Tests and test equipment.
- Face masks, shields, and filtering facepiece respirators
- Drugs, devices, and other means of treating COVID-19
- The means to produce all of the above
Again, we know the pandemic is an emergency. We agree that the Defense Production Act is one tool in responding to the need for basic supplies to fight COVID-19. But, as non-partisan budget watchdogs, throwing gobs of money at a problem and relaxing the rules on how quickly emergency funding should be spent, makes us uneasy.
Strict oversight is needed of this kind of spending. See our posting about funding for Inspectors General for more on that.