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White House Not Using Defense Powers To Boost Medical Supplies

President Trump says he's not using his authority to control production and distribution of medical supplies.
Eric Baradat
AFP via Getty Images
President Trump says he's not using his authority to control production and distribution of medical supplies.

The medical community is sounding increasingly urgent alarms about shortages of masks, gloves and ventilators — essential supplies in the fight against the coronavirus.

Meanwhile, President Trump has issued contradictory statements about whether his administration is ordering private companies to ramp up production of those items.

Here's an updated Q&A on the Defense Production Act, the invoked-but-not-really-invoked law at the heart of the confusion.

Is the White House actually using the Defense Production Act?

The president has invoked the act, called the DPA, and used it to give broad powers to the secretary of health and human services. But five days later, those powers have not actually been used.

Some governors are calling for the law to be used at once, because states are currently scrambling over scarce resources in a free-for-all.

What does the DPA allow the White House to do?

The White House could:

  • Give government orders top priority — so when there aren't enough gloves to go around, for instance, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gets its gloves first.
  • Distribute limited resources according to national interests. For instance, the government decides how many gloves go to each state.
  • Order manufacturers to produce a certain item and take control of the supply chain to enable maximum production of that product.
  • The law also grants other powers, like giving manufacturers incentives to make certain products in the U.S. and allowing cooperative efforts that would otherwise violate antitrust laws.

    Is it unusual to use the DPA?

    Parts of the DPA are used all the time. For instance, the departments of Defense and Homeland Security routinely use it to force a business to fill their orders first. The Federal Emergency Management Agency also uses that authority.

    Other parts have not been used in decades — like the authority to order manufacturers to produce essential items, or to allow the government to take control of supply chains.

    Without the DPA being invoked, what's happening to the supply of medical goods?

    Businesses that make medical equipment are already working to increase their production to meet demand. 3M hasdoubled its output of masks. The ventilator maker Philips isplanning to quadruple production, but that will take months.

    Some businesses — from fashion companies to furniture makers — are starting to produce masks. General Motors is working with a ventilator maker to support its efforts to ramp up production.

    These efforts are all voluntary.

    What would happen if the White House started to use the DPA?

    HHS could immediately step in to manage the distribution of existing resources.

    It could take longer for production increases to happen. Existing medical manufacturers are already trying to maximize production. Converting new factories to make medical equipment can't happen overnight, and all the plants would be limited by the availability of supplies and raw materials.

    But the DPA could be used to direct all available resources toward those manufacturing needs. It would also allow defense contractors to shift resources away from their military orders and toward medical needs.

    Why hasn't the White House used the DPA authorities it has invoked?

    Trump said Sunday that he wanted to avoid "nationalizing our businesses," citing the example of Venezuela, which routinely seized private companies without compensation. That's very different than the authorities granted under the DPA, which do not give the U.S. government ownership of a business.

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    Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.