NORTHFIELD, Ill.—The Northfield medical products giant is a partner in Project Airbridge, a federal effort to expedite shipment of medical supplies from overseas to U.S. COVID hotspots. The effort, however, has drawn criticism—including from Illinois' governor.
"Project Airbridge" has become better known than its organizers at the Federal Emergency Management Agency might have planned: The public-private partnership between FEMA and a handful of U.S. health supplies manufacturers has earned its share of scrutiny, especially since Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker has singled out the program for criticism on national television.
What's less well-known is that one of the five companies participating in the project is Northfield's own Medline Industries, a major supplier of medical products ranging from face masks, one of the hottest commodities in the world right now, to baby blankets.
Medline is one of five companies to receive a federal waiver that allows them to coordinate the sale of personal protective equipment throughout the U.S. without worrying about antitrust complaints that would normally apply if companies as large as Medline, Cardinal Health, McKesson, Owens & Minor and Henry Schein, all partners in the program, were to work together to gain control over pricing and distribution in the marketplace.
Medline explains that it uses federally chartered air cargo flights to bring supplies it has purchased through its existing network of overseas suppliers. In exchange, Medline promises it will sell 50 percent of that cargo to Medline customers in COVID hotspots identified by FEMA.
Amid accusations of supply chain confusion and outright confiscation of state-procured equipment, federal officials say programs like Project Airbridge are designed to expedite shipment of medical supplies procured by private health care providers, including Medline, to the United States from overseas.
Pritzker, however, contends that Project Airbridge is just one of several Trump administration policies that have the effect of pitting states against one another in bidding for lifesaving products. With little coordination from Washington, Pritzker told PBS Newshour on April 6 that Illinois is sidestepping Project Airbridge and sourcing personal protective gear on its own.