It has been 19 long months since legislation designed to increase federal purchases of American-made PPE was enacted, but the inaction of at least one key federal agency in purchasing more domestically-produced items is posing a threat to the very U.S. supply chain that stepped up overnight to protect our nation during the COVID pandemic.
Fortunately, at least, one congressional oversight committee is taking notice.
The overarching question on the mind of many U.S. textile and apparel executives who retooled production lines to produce millions of facemasks, hospital gowns and other critical PPE items at the height of the pandemic is whether they will ever see a demand signal and contracts from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
This leading agency which procures PPE for the government seems to be mired in bureaucratic red tape when it comes to fully implementing a strategic plan to purchase more American-made PPE, as mandated by law.
The legislation at the heart of the matter—the Make PPE in America Act, which took effect in February 2022—requires that all PPE purchased by the Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS), Homeland Security (DHS) and VA be made by manufacturers in the United States using domestic components.
Last week, a House congressional oversight committee held a hearing and finally started asking the right questions of VA officials.
On Thursday, the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs’ (HVAC) Subcommittee on Oversight & Investigations held a hearing on “VA Procurement: Made in America,” to explore the agency’s action plan on several Made in America policies, including the Make PPE in America Act.
The chairwoman of the oversight subcommittee, Rep. Jen Kiggans (R-VA), raised concerns about the VA’s inaction and lack of a strategic plan.
“Congress and both this administration and the Trump administration made it a priority to ensure the federal government is buying American-made products,” Kiggans said in her opening statement.
However, she expressed serious concerns about the VA’s approach, noting that a year and a half after the law was enacted, “there appears to be very little that has changed.”
“I understand that new legislation takes time to implement, but issues at the VA don’t normally get better with time. A recent inspector general report highlighted significant issues with VA’s compliance with decades-old Made in America laws.”
She also noted it is concerning that she has heard from industry leaders that as recently as a few months ago the VA “didn’t even seem to have a plan to implement the law.”
See her remarks here:
https://youtu.be/ndzZawcJG6w | Video Credit: Rebecca Tantillo
“Many American companies have overhauled their production lines to meet the demand for world-class goods and supplies,” Kiggans said. “The VA must similarly change their procurement process to step up their outreach and market research to identify opportunities to work with American companies. I’m concerned many of these companies will be forced to close down their operations if the VA doesn’t immediately follow the law and take a more proactive approach to buying American.”
“Relying on foreign products in a time of crisis is a flawed strategy that unfortunately was felt directly by the VA employees and veterans,”said Rep. Frank Mrvan (D-IN) in his opening remarks. “This requires a concerted effort across VA to comply with the laws and the presidential directives in place to provide opportunities for American companies to provide personal protective equipment and other supplies.”
“Without a consistent demand for these products, we cannot ensure that American companies will be around for the next crisis,” he added.
In his written submission and opening remarks at the hearing, Michael Parrish, the VA’s Principal Executive Director of the Office of Acquisition, Logistics and Construction and Chief Acquisition Officer, stressed the agency is committed to full implementation of its statutory requirements but noted “achieving the goals espoused in these statutes, policies and executive orders takes time.”
He acknowledged that availability of 100% domestically-produced PPE “requires a clear and organized federal demand signal to support the existing and future industry investments, innovation as well as a long-term commitment. VA is committed to working with other Federal agencies to communicate to industry the importance of domestically-produced PPE.”
He claimed the VA has found in many instances that inputs of PPE are “not yet [manufactured] in the U.S. and raw materials are manufactured overseas.”
This statement will undoubtedly cause concern among NCTO member companies who have worked vigilantly to be certified over the past three years and repeatedly communicated to the VA and other agencies that there is an existing supply chain ready and able to meet their procurement needs. The root of the problem is not lack of capacity, but rather lack of planning, strategy and demand signal on the part of the VA.
Parrish said the VA has taken the following steps thus far: developing an executable acquisition strategy for each PPE item identified in the Make PPE in America Act that has been prioritized for action; developing common requirements and an acquisition strategy for all items on the consensus PPE list by the end of calendar year 2023; and reporting noteworthy accomplishments towards the development of a long-term PPE strategy under the President’s Management Agenda.
Following a multi-agency Make PPE in America Industry Day in April, at which NCTO President and CEO Kim Glas participated in a panel discussion, Parrish said the VA issued a request for information to Blanket Purchase Agreement holders participating in the VA’s MSVP program to “gauge how many are fully compliant with Made in America Act requirements.”
“To date, through vendor self-certification, VA has identified 129 items on its MSPV product list that are 100% Made in America compliant,” Parrish said in his written submission.
Among the PPE items that are not yet compliant are things like nitrile gloves, he noted.
“The journey requires support beyond the Federal health care space of VA (and DoD) to achieve the goal, maintain supply chain resiliency and reduce dependency on overseas markets for PPE requirements ranging from raw materials to finished products,” Parrish noted.
Rep. Aumua Amata Coleman Radewagen (R-AS), a non-voting delegate in the House of Representatives, asked a series of questions related specifically to the VA’s implementation efforts, noting that she has met with manufacturing associations representing American PPE producers that “feel they are being underutilized by the VA.”
Radewagen asked VA officials testifying at the hearing to explain the process for identifying domestic PPE sources, whether the VA has entered into any PPE procurement contracts since the law was enacted; and, if so, what percentage of these contracts are compliant with the Make PPE in America Act as well as how the VA ensures the PPE it purchases from its vendors is compliant with the Make PPE in America Act.
Andrew Centineo, Executive Director of Procurement and Logistics for the VA in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, said several agencies met with industry partners in April at the government-sponsored Industry Day and have since held medical surgical prime vendor industry opportunities, in addition to biweekly engagements with industry.
He said the feedback he has received from industry is that it will provide the products but it needs assurances the demand signal from the VA and other agencies is there.
See the full exchange with VA officials here:
https://youtu.be/B4Pc1L8Hp4c | Video Credit: Rebecca Tantillo
NCTO has been strongly advocating for full implementation of the legislation and pushing for a strong demand signal for American-made PPE.
See an op-ed by NCTO President and CEO Kim Glas here: Opinion: The Time to Act on American-Made PPE Is Now.
In addition, Glas participated in the multi-agency Make PPE in America Day in April.
See three clips from her remarks here:
This failure to date on the part of the VA and the lack of a demand signal from agencies and the private hospital sector is hurting U.S. textile and apparel manufacturers that retooled production chains overnight and are now left sitting with idled capacity and very few purchasing orders.
Three NCTO member companies outlined their concerns in a press release last week.
“The VA and all federal agencies need to fully implement this law immediately. It is critical to the viability of the domestic PPE supply chain and to our nation’s long-term health and national security,” Glas said in the statement. Without the commitment, our manufacturers will be forced to shutter operations and the PPE domestic supply chain will disappear, leaving our country overly reliant once again on unreliable imports from China and other foreign suppliers,” she added.