COVID-19 became the first national pandemic response led by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) since its inception. However, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) has found that FEMA did not provide sufficient oversight of its COVID-19 initiative, Project Airbridge.
FEMA established the project under unprecedented pressure to mitigate disruptions in global medical supply chains. The project was intended as a temporary measure to address perceived shortfalls in distributors’ personal protective equipment (PPE) inventories of gloves, gowns, and masks. However, OIG found that the project actually supplemented the distributors’ already large domestic inventories.
OIG attributes Project Airbridge’s unnecessary air shipment of PPE to the pressure FEMA faced to get medical supplies distributed quickly. With a limited understanding of commercial supply and demand, FEMA did not sufficiently assess whether medical supply distributors needed Project Airbridge to stabilize their supply chains.
FEMA covered the flight costs of shipping PPE from overseas factories in several countries (such as Malaysia, China, and Vietnam) to U.S. medical supply distributors. By using air freight instead of sea shipments, Project Airbridge reduced shipment times from around 36 days to about 4 days.
In exchange for expedited flights at FEMA’s expense, the medical supply distributors agreed to distribute at least 50 percent of the transported PPE to distributors’ customers at a reasonable price in specific areas prioritized by FEMA and Health and Human Services. However, OIG found that FEMA did not ensure the distributors delivered PPE to healthcare facilities as agreed. The watchdog could only confirm distributors delivered 35 percent of Airbridge PPE to designated healthcare facilities in prioritized locations instead of the 50 percent minimum required by FEMA. Because FEMA did not properly define the project’s requirements, OIG said it did not have sufficient controls to hold the distributors accountable. As a result, FEMA paid to transport PPE that may not have been necessary to meet distributors’ needs and was not always delivered to locations most in need.
On March 29, 2020, the first Project Airbridge flight landed at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport; the last flight landed on June 30, 2020, at Ohio’s Rickenbacker International Airport. In total, FEMA spent $237.6 million to transport to the United States approximately 1.1 billion PPE items, primarily consisting of gloves, masks, and gowns.
Ultimately, OIG said the project’s $238 million may have been better spent on other COVID-19 initiatives. It advises FEMA should leverage lessons learned from this audit when contemplating and undertaking future private-government partnerships and has made two recommendations to help it do so.
FEMA disagreed with some of OIG’s conclusions and cited reports of PPE supply chain disruptions, rising PPE demand signals, and shortages of PPE among hospital staff. OIG countered that its findings do not question whether PPE supply chain disruptions existed or whether PPE shortages existed among healthcare workers, but rather whether Project Airbridge was an effective and efficient solution as implemented. The watchdog found that Project Airbridge supplemented large and growing PPE inventories of participating medical supply distributors, and FEMA did not ensure those distributors delivered PPE to healthcare facilities as agreed. Therefore, OIG maintains that Project Airbridge appeared to have had little impact in reducing critical PPE shortages for healthcare workers who needed supplies most.
First, OIG recommends that FEMA develops and implements assessment criteria for public/private partnerships with distributors in response to life-threatening circumstances or events. At a minimum, assessment criteria should include: a justification memorandum explaining why each partnership is necessary, including a clear definition of the problem and why the partnership is an effective solution with consideration of needs, costs, and alternatives; an assessment of alternatives; a cost/benefit analysis; and information regarding the partners’ existing supply chain, including existing inventories, supply replenishment shipments and customer orders and deliveries to support public/private partnerships.
FEMA officials concurred and will develop assessment criteria that apply when a public/private partnership is necessary to effectuate the delivery of emergency protective measure assistance under the Stafford Act.
OIG also recommends that FEMA develops and implements policies and procedures for the use of memorandums of agreement when establishing public/private partnerships in response to life-threatening circumstances or events. The policies and procedures should ensure FEMA can enforce and assess compliance with the memorandums of agreement requirements and address, at a minimum: the review and approval process; statutory authorities; roles and responsibilities; evaluation and reporting requirements; targeted end-use, users, and locations; and industry information necessary to monitor compliance.
FEMA officials again concurred and said the agency will develop policies and procedures to establish memoranda of agreement or other appropriate agreements that apply when a public/private partnership is necessary to effectuate emergency protective measures assistance under the Stafford Act. FEMA’s estimated completion date for both recommendations is December 31, 2024.