Three U.S. senators today demanded an investigation into Project Air Bridge, a Trump administration supply chain management project to import personal protective equipment (PPE) and other medical supplies during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dubbing the project “opaque,” U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) also released new documents and information from the six major medical wholesalers or distribution companies involved in the project — Cardinal Health (NYSE:CAH), McKesson, Medline Industries, Henry Schein (NSDQ:HSIC), Owens & Minor (NYSE:OMI) and Concordance Healthcare Solutions.
Warren and Blumenthal began investigating Project Air Bridge in April after multiple reports of seizures of supplies by federal officials and what they characterized in a news release as “political favoritism, cronyism, and price-gouging via third-party sellers.” The companies’ responses to the senators’ requests for information left some questions unanswered, prompting the request for an investigation by the Congressional Pandemic Response Accountability Committee (PRAC). The companies’ responses to the senators’ initial inquiry are attached to the release.
At issue are the origin of, and chain of command involved in, Project Air Bridge. The senators contend that suppliers’ responses confirm reports that efforts to distribute PPE leaned heavily on the involvement of private sector volunteers using personal email addresses, several with connections to Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. The involvement of non-government officials may raise questions about federal ethics law, conflicts of interest, federal records law, or adherence to federal guidance and rulemaking standards, according to the senators.
The project involved having the six companies fly personal protective equipment for healthcare workers into the U.S. from overseas at a cost of approximately $154 million to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), according to a report by the Washington Post. The companies were required to sell half of those supplies to their own customers in COVID-19 hotspots, and to sell the rest as they pleased, the Post added.
Those supplies, which are being shipped by commercial airfreight companies, would normally be shipped by sea, according to Cardinal Health’s response to the senators’ request for information. Project Air Bridge has so far funded 205 flights, with another 44 scheduled, the newspaper noted.
The senators also contend that Project Air Bridge deliveries included far more gloves (87%) than N95 respirators (0.13%), which have been subject to severe shortages. The companies all maintain that they did not increase pricing for items shipped via Project Air Bridge. Owen & Minor said as of Feb. 1, 2020, Project Air Bridge had delivered 320 million units of the company’s PPE, compared with more than 3 billion units that the company itself delivered.
Concordance, Henry Schein and Medline told the senators that they did not know why they were included in Project Air Bridge, according to the senators’ June 8 letter to the PRAC acting chair. Owens & Minor expressed concern that people using personal email addresses were asking for “pretty darn sensitive” information. The companies also reported they did not know whether or how the federal government was monitoring the prices they charged for the supplies, the letter said.
“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,” Warren said in the news releases. “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 White House did not immediately provide comment.