White House ventilator deal under investigation

WASHINGTON -- A House subcommittee is investigating a government deal to buy $70 million worth of ventilators for the pandemic response after reports that they were inadequate for treating most covid-19 patients.

Last spring, as part of its effort to increase the number of ventilators for treating the coronavirus, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Defense Logistics Agency purchased 11,200 AutoMedx SAVe II+ ventilators from Combat Medical Systems, which distributes the devices. But the ventilators were inadequate for treating covid-19 patients and remain in warehouses, according to Stephanie Bialek, a spokeswoman for the Strategic National Stockpile.

"AutoMedx appears to be the beneficiary of a potentially tainted procurement process," said Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., the leader of the House Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy, which is in charge of the investigation, wrote in letters sent to the companies on Wednesday.

The Washington Post previously reported that AutoMedx's co-founder and current shareholder, Adrian Urias, advised the Trump administration's covid-19 task force on ventilator purchases. In March, when the U.S. government posted the minimum specifications ventilator manufacturers must meet to sell devices for the pandemic response, those specifications were nearly identical to a specifications sheet listed on AutoMedx's website at the time.

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Krishnamoorthi, who is likely to continue on as chairman, cited Urias' role on the task force and the similarity of the specifications in his letters. The fact that the AutoMedx ventilators are ill-suited for covid-19 patients "raises serious questions about whether their purchase for nearly $70 million constitutes waste, fraud, or abuse," he wrote.

In letters to Combat Medical and AutoMedx, the committee requested documents and communications related to the contract and a description of negotiations with the federal government. The committee also requested any communications related to the principals at the company, as well as prominent officials in President Donald Trump's administration, such as the former president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, former Health and Human Services secretary Alex Azar and adviser Peter Navarro, the director of trade and manufacturing policy who helped coordinate efforts to produce medical supplies for the pandemic response.

The Democrat-controlled House Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy, part of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, has been investigating the federal approach to ventilator procurement since mid-April, when a White House-led task force sought to quickly procure medical supplies as the virus spread.

Widespread ventilator shortages never materialized. But the U.S. government was left with a trove of ventilators acquired through hastily arranged agreements with manufacturers. One contract with the medical device manufacturer Phillips was subject to a fivefold price increase after it was renegotiated by Trump administration officials. The committee concluded that the waste of taxpayer funds caused by the Trump administration's ventilator procurement could be as high as $500 million. A report in Pro Publica spurred the Phillips investigation.

The contract for AutoMedx ventilators, at about $70 million, is relatively small in the broader context of the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on covid-19 relief. But the company's apparent connections to the White House team that coordinated ventilator response raised questions about the fairness of the selection process.

After the initial contract to purchase the AutoMedx SAVe II ventilator in March, several military doctors and medical personnel expressed misgivings about the appropriateness of the SAVe II ventilator for covid treatment in an email chain reviewed by the Post, raising broader concerns about whether the national stockpile received the right products. Doctors familiar with the SAVe II called it "awful and underpowered," according to the emails. One military doctor said an underpowered ventilator could "kill [covid patients] just as fast as no ventilator at all."

Rather than back out of the contract, the Department of Health and Human Services requested that Combat Medical Systems make a new ventilator with improved features, according to Katie McKeogh, a spokeswoman for the department. That ventilator became the SAVe II+, a device with improved capabilities but one emergency room doctors say is still inadequate for the pandemic response.