Hospital Exec’s Face Mask Story: Price Gouging, Disguised Trucks, U.S. Agents

A hospital executive detailed the extreme measures he took to secure basic personal protective equipment for doctors and nurses in Massachusetts, paying exorbitant prices, transporting masks in trucks marked as food service vehicles and fending off the federal government’s attempt to seize the items at the last moment.

Dr. Andrew Artenstein, a chief physician executive at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, told a story he described as “like something out of a movie” in the New England Journal of Medicine. 

In his article that the prestigious journal published on Friday, Artenstein wrote that his hospital spent weeks wrangling “large sums of money” for gloves, face masks, goggles and N95 respirators to protect workers, and “got lucky” locating a broker representing a supplier from China.

Medical professionals around the country have struggled for weeks to find adequate protective equipment to treat a wave of patients infected with COVID-19, some resorting to reusing single-use masks, wearing trash bags or using scarves and bandanas to try and protect themselves. States have complained that the federal stockpile of PPE gear was inadequate.

“As a chief physician executive, I rarely get involved in my health system’s supply-chain activities,” Artenstein wrote. “Protecting our caregivers is essential so that these talented professionals can safely provide compassionate care to our patients. Yet we continue to be stymied by a lack of personal protective equipment.”

Artenstein described how his hospital pursued a “lead” and located the PPE cache. He agreed to pay “more than five times the amount we would normally pay for a similar shipment.”

But the deal’s conclusion sounded more like a spy story than the acquisition of medical supplies: 

Three members of the supply-chain team and a fit tester were flown to a small airport near an industrial warehouse in the mid-Atlantic region. I arrived by car to make the final call on whether to execute the deal. Two semi-trailer trucks, cleverly marked as food-service vehicles, met us at the warehouse. …

Upon arrival, we were jubilant to see pallets of KN95 respirators and face masks being unloaded. … Before we could send the funds by wire transfer, two Federal Bureau of Investigation agents arrived, showed their badges, and started questioning me. No, this shipment was not headed for resale or the black market.

Artenstein said the agents released the shipment. But then he learned the Department of Homeland Security was considering whether it could redirect the protective equipment. Artenstein said he called a congressional representative in order to prevent that outcome.

“Did I foresee, as a health-system leader working in a rich, highly developed country with state-of-the-art science and technology and incredible talent, that my organization would ever be faced with such a set of circumstances? Of course not,” he wrote. “This is the unfortunate reality we face in the time of Covid-19.”

The coronavirus continues to spread in the U.S., which has the most cases and deaths of any country in the world.

At the same time, the White House has insisted doctors have all the supplies they need. President Donald Trump said earlier this month some hospitals were “complainers” with “insatiable appetites” and has questioned where supplies of masks are going, at times alluding health care workers may be misusing them.

The president has been urging the country to reopen as soon as possible, releasing a three-phase plan that governors could use to kickstart their states. The move has prompted warnings from the nation’s top medical advisers that doing so too soon, however, could be disastrous.

Artenstein’s article has attracted the attention of some lawmakers. Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif), tweeted at Trump and Vice President Mike Pence asking if they had any knowledge of federal agencies organizing seizures of personal protective equipment, “taking them away from states and hospitals.”

The FBI told The Boston Globe it is working “to ensure PPE is not being unlawfully distributed or hoarded.”

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