Slotkin leads bipartisan bill to replenish U.S. stockpile of critical medical supplies

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

The motivation behind U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin's latest bill was her time spent in March haggling over the phone with a Chinese middleman to get 78-cent N95 masks for Sparrow Hospital in her district. 

Rep. Elissa Slotkin

In the first five weeks of the coronavirus pandemic, her office was overrun with pleas from doctors and nurses desperate for personal protective equipment like masks, gloves and gowns that they were sharing or rationing while caring for COVID-19 patients. 

The shortage of supplies and equipment for high-risk health care workers during Michigan's first peak of infections was a hard-learned lesson for state officials and congressional lawmakers facing an insufficient U.S. national stockpile and a supply chain dependent on foreign manufacturers. 

"That experience was pretty profound for me," Slotkin said. "In Michigan, we've been talking about the dangers of outsourcing manufacturing since the '80s. We've been saying it and shouting into the wind that this is not good for the United States for many reasons. And I feel like the chickens came home to roost during COVID-19."

Slotkin, D-Holly, last week led the introduction of a bipartisan package of legislation meant to begin reducing the country's dependence on foreign sources of medical supplies and strengthening the national stockpile by boosting both resources and transparency. 

"We may have another wave, and you can see how the global supply of PPE could very easily again be stressed beyond the limit like it was before," she said. 

The legislation passed out of committee last week, and Slotkin is pushing to get it on the House calendar for a vote before the end of the month. She hopes it moves quickly to the Senate, either as a standalone bill or as part of the next coronavirus relief package. 

"We were very deliberately and rigorously bipartisan on this bill: Nine Democrats and nine Republicans together, purposely. We have bipartisan interest in the Senate, and everyone in Washington is talking about how we need to make more medical supplies, and more pharmaceutical in the United States," she said.

"I haven't heard one person counter that. And so it's a real test of whether we can all agree on something and then actually see it move to completion."

A mannequin wears a face mask in the window of a store in Commerce, Calif.

The bill, co-sponsored by Michigan Reps. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, and Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, among others, includes a provision from Dingell that would authorize $500 million annually through 2023 to create incentives for the domestic manufacturing of medical supplies and establish and maintain domestic reserves or "surge capacity" of critical supplies such as PPE and diagnostic tests.

"What we were getting from China was very substandard masks, gloves, gowns," Dingell said. 

"We need to have capability to in this country manufacture the equipment that we need. I also really want to bring the supply chain for medicine here. People didn’t realize how many of our prescription drugs were being made in China and India."

Upton in a statement called the bill a "common sense" measure to "ensure that we will be able to get life-saving care into the right hands at the right time."

"I’m proud to be an original co-sponsor and would encourage my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to support this legislation," Upton said. 

The bill aims to ensure items in the stockpile are not expired (like some supplies sent to Michigan were) and are maintained in working order. If equipment is nearing its expiration date, the government could sell it off to organizations or agencies that could use it and replenish stocks with non-expired supplies, Slotkin said.

Another provision would require transparent processes for allocating stockpile supplies to the states, as well as a reporting to Congress on all state, local and territorial requests for stockpile supplies and the response to each request. 

Several hard-hit states had complained in the early weeks of the coronavirus outbreak that communities were receiving shipments of supplies based on population rather than critical need. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has said supplies from the U.S. stockpile were inadequate to meet Michigan's needs and led to states competing against one another and federal agencies for shipments. 

The bill introduced last week would create a pilot program to support states that want to maintain their own stockpiles of equipment. 

Slotkin said problems with the stockpile date back years, in part due to multiple administrations and congresses not investing enough in the stockpile. 

Lawmakers are concerned about the current status of the U.S. stockpile, which was depleted during outbreaks of COVID cases around the country this spring.

"We don't right now have an accurate report on what's in it, and whether it's expired or not," Slotkin said.

"Part of the reason we put together this package is we just can't accept that opaque situation with the stockpile. We need to have a much higher accounting on what's in it, what's expiring, what's expired, and how do we keep it fresh."