"Project Airbridge" has become better known than its organizers at the Federal Emergency Management Agency might have planned: The public-private partnership between FEMA and a handful of U.S. health supplies manufacturers has earned its share of scrutiny, especially since Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker has singled out the program for criticism on national television.
What's less well-known is that one of the five companies participating in the project is Northfield, Ill.'s Medline Industries, a major supplier of medical products ranging from face masks, one of the hottest commodities in the world right now, to baby blankets.
Medline is one of five companies to receive a federal waiver that allows them to coordinate the sale of personal protective equipment throughout the U.S. without worrying about antitrust complaints that would normally apply if companies as large as Medline, Cardinal Health, McKesson, Owens & Minor and Henry Schein, all partners in the program, were to work together to gain control over pricing and distribution in the marketplace.
Medline explains that it uses federally chartered air cargo flights to bring supplies it has purchased through its existing network of overseas suppliers. In exchange, Medline promises it will sell 50 percent of that cargo to Medline customers in COVID hotspots identified by FEMA.
Amid accusations of supply chain confusion and outright confiscation of state-procured equipment, federal officials say programs like Project Airbridge are designed to expedite shipment of medical supplies procured by private health care providers, including Medline, to the United States from overseas.
Pritzker, however, contends that Project Airbridge is just one of several Trump administration policies that have the effect of pitting states against one another in bidding for lifesaving products. With little coordination from Washington, Pritzker told PBS Newshour on April 6 that Illinois is sidestepping Project Airbridge and sourcing personal protective gear on its own.
Under Project Airbridge, "they're bringing stuff back from China to the United States and then they're delivering it to private companies in the United States, not to the states, and they're letting all of us bid against each other for those goods that are owned by the private companies," Pritzker said. "So we've just gone around all that and gone directly to manufacturers wherever we could."
A Medline spokesman declined to comment on Pritzker's statements. Pritzker also said that the federal government has delivered less than 10 percent of what Illinois has asked for, so his department of emergency management, the Illinois Department of Public Health and his governor's office has become "supply chain experts." He pointed out that the state is bidding against the federal government, states and other countries for those supplies in the global market.
Medline says it has put in place inventory management policies and placed items like face masks, gloves, gowns, coveralls, surgical drapes and hand sanitizer on allocation. Allocation is a system whereby the company decides how many items a customer gets. "This is the only way to ensure supplies are available for everyone," said Medline spokesman Jesse Greenberg.