Law360 (March 26, 2020, 11:21 PM EDT) -- Amid shortages in supplies such as masks, gloves and personal protective equipment during the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Department of Defense said Wednesday that it has created a task force to streamline the process of acquiring supplies.
Aside from announcing the task force, Ellen M. Lord, undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, touched on whether the president had fully invoked the Defense Production Act, a law that makes the federal government the top priority for receiving vital equipment in times of crisis. The DOD, she said, "has had DPA authority" for defense matters and will use the task force to direct funding and guide other acquisition efforts under the act.
The department said it is establishing the task force in part to help field an influx of requests for medical and protective equipment from other agencies, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Health and Human Services.
"The task force will leverage DOD authorities for maximum acquisition flexibility — I emphasize 'flexibility' — to provide resilient capability in the current health crisis," Lord said.
The DOD is also trying to lessen dependence on foreign suppliers as it addresses the crisis, she said.
"So what we are doing is using this joint acquisition task force to be the group that takes in all the demand signals from HHS and FEMA and then goes and looks at the resources that we have to begin to manufacture," Lord said.
The task force will be led by Stacy Cummings, head of the department's Acquisition Enablers office.
The DOD is also creating repositories to keep track of "good ideas from industry" so that there is one place to see different offerings in terms of technical assistance and manufacturing capabilities, Lord said.
"There are great ideas coming out, from 3D printing to other things," Lord said. "I'm looking at alternative materials for N95 masks versus what has been traditionally been used."
Last week, President Donald Trump invoked the Defense Production Act, a 1950 law that grants the president broad economic authority to address shortages in items and services necessary for national defense, but contractors are still uncertain about how the government will be enforcing it.
FEMA Administrator Peter Gaynor said Tuesday morning that the government would use the DPA to obtain 60,000 coronavirus test kits, but reversed that decision after Trump said later in the day that his administration had not ordered the full use of the statute. FEMA ended up getting the test kits from the private market without using the DPA.
In terms of the confusion on whether Trump had invoked the DPA, Lord said the law's applications may continue to evolve this week.
"The White House is very judiciously looking through what segments of DPA they will use," Lord said.
She said that when Trump said he wasn't invoking the act, "I think he is talking about broadly using DPA to, in fact, take over private industry. That's what he has clearly said he is not going to do."
Lord said two parts of the law apply to the DOD, which can provide economic incentives such as loans, grants and long-lead funding to businesses to speed up the process of supplying resources.
Under the act, the DOD has the authority to rate defense contracts based on priority and to "allocate materials in a way that best meets the warfighter needs," Lord said. The DPA also "provides the DOD a means to partner with industry to strengthen commercial industrial base capabilities essential to national defense," Lord said.
--Additional reporting by Alyssa Aquino. Editing by Aaron Pelc and Michael Watanabe.
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