About two dozen employees from Boston Consulting Group, Insight, McKinsey and other firms have volunteered their time — some on paid vacation leave from their jobs and others without pay — to aid the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, according to administration officials and others familiar with the arrangement.
Although some of the volunteers have relevant backgrounds and experience, many others were poorly matched with their assigned jobs, including those given the task of securing personal protective equipment (PPE) for hospitals nationwide, according to a complaint filed last month with the House Oversight Committee.
The volunteer team played a significant role in helping the government vet leads and send the results to a procurement team at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, where government officials made final decisions about purchases and procurements, two senior administration officials said. The team’s problems underscore a broader pattern of missteps and missed opportunities that has plagued the Trump administration as it struggles to cope with the pandemic.
The complaint, obtained by The Washington Post, was submitted by a volunteer who has since left the group and who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution from the administration. Key elements of the complaint were confirmed by six administration officials and one outside adviser to the effort, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
A spokeswoman for the oversight panel declined to comment.
The document alleges that the team responsible for PPE had little success in helping the government secure such equipment, in part because none of the team members had significant experience in health care, procurement or supply-chain operations. In addition, none of the volunteers had relationships with manufacturers or a clear understanding of customs requirements or Food and Drug Administration rules, according to the complaint and two senior administration officials.
“Americans are facing a crisis of tragic proportions and there is an urgent need for an effective, efficient and bold response,” reads the complaint, which was sent to the committee on April 8. “From my few weeks as a volunteer, I believe we are falling short. I am writing to alert my representatives of these challenges and to ask that they do everything possible to help front-line health-care workers and other Americans in need.”
Supply-chain volunteers were instructed to fast-track protective equipment leads from “VIPs,” including conservative journalists friendly to the White House, according to the complaint and one senior administration official.
“Fox & Friends” host Brian Kilmeade, for example, called two people he knew in the administration to pass along a lead about PPE in an effort to be helpful, said two people familiar with the outreach. Fox News Channel host Jeanine Pirro also repeatedly lobbied the administration for a specific New York hospital to receive a large quantity of masks, one of the people said.
Kilmeade and Pirro said they were not aware that their tips were being prioritized, a Fox News spokeswoman said.
The volunteer group tasked with securing protective equipment is part of a broader coronavirus team set up by Kushner that spans the White House, FEMA and the Department of Health and Human Services. Much of the effort is run out of office space at FEMA headquarters.
Kushner and other key administration officials praised the volunteers’ efforts, which they said have helped the virus response.
“The bottom line is that this program sourced tens of millions of masks and essential PPE in record time and Americans who needed ventilators received ventilators,” Kushner said in a statement. “These volunteers are true patriots.”
But some government officials have expressed alarm at the presence of the volunteers, saying that their role in the response is unclear and that they have needed guidance on basic questions.
Health experts said procuring PPE requires expertise in the different types of equipment hospitals need, experience dealing with manufacturers and an understanding of which types of masks, for instance, have FDA approval.
“That’s the danger — there may be decisions being made that are not fully informed and that’s going to lead to downstream effects on the response,” said Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and an infectious-disease physician. “The people that are volunteering, they are donating their time and we have to be grateful for that, but whoever is supervising them needs to match their skills with what the needs are.”
Even as the volunteer group struggled to procure PPE, about 30 percent of “key supplies,” including masks, in the national stockpile of emergency medical equipment went toward standing up a separate Kushner-led effort to establish drive-through testing sites nationwide, according to a March internal planning document obtained by The Post and confirmed by one current and one former administration official. Kushner had originally promised thousands of testing sites, but only 78 materialized; the stockpile was used to supply 44 of those over five to 10 days, the document said.
One White House official denied that a third of the stockpile went to Kushner’s initiative, but declined to provide details.
The team of volunteers focused on PPE had trouble developing manufacturer relationships and making inroads with brokers, in part because they were using personal email accounts, rather than official government email addresses, the House Oversight Committee complaint states. Three senior administration officials confirmed the volunteers’ use of personal email addresses.
In addition to the already challenging circumstances, the complaint also says that on some of the teams, “minimal attempts at social distancing are taken.”
Jordan Libowitz, a spokesman for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said that the volunteers should be classified as “special government employees” and that the arrangement raises myriad concerns.
“This is the problem with operating off the books,” he said. “We just don’t know if they’re following the law or not.”
The volunteers were told to save and share a copy of all of their official emails, to comply with the Federal Records Act, according to the volunteer and administration officials. But Libowitz said that “by using private email accounts, we have no assurances that their emails are being preserved. . . . This doesn’t prove anything nefarious is going on, but if something nefarious was going on, this is how they would do it.”
Two senior administration officials disputed a number of the concerns outlined in the complaint. They said that the volunteers did not have trouble vetting leads or getting responses from brokers or companies, and that many of the volunteers had relevant backgrounds and experience. The officials added that it is difficult to know whether the volunteers received leads on protective equipment that resulted in procurement because nongovernment employees did not have final decision or purchasing authority.
The officials also said they had not heard of any sort of “VIP” treatment prioritizing some leads over others.
“I believe the volunteers are competent, hard working and intelligent, but we represent a smaller procurement team than at most midsized companies despite the magnitude of the crisis,” the complaint says. “I believe America deserves a larger, better-funded response. The team generally works 12+ hour days, seven days per week, but frankly has little to show for it.”
Kushner’s team is made up of private industry volunteers as well as allies in government, including Brad Smith, director of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation, and Adam Boehler, a former HHS official who was brought in to assist with the coronavirus response, as well as private industry executives.
Some of the volunteers were asked to create models projecting how much protective equipment the government would need to address the crisis, while others worked to project potential drug shortages that hospitals could face, according to four people familiar with the effort.
But administration officials deemed some of the models “too catastrophic,” a person familiar with the situation said. The administration ultimately decided to rely primarily on a model created by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington that has had some of the most optimistic projections of cases and deaths.
Those directly involved in Kushner’s effort were quick to praise the volunteers, stressing that the team members — many of whom relocated to Washington — upended their lives to try to help the administration manage the deadly pandemic.
“In the face of this unprecedented crisis, these volunteers dropped everything to help our country,” Boehler said in a statement. “This is not a partisan issue, this is an American one, and I am proud of these patriots.”
Navy Rear Adm. John Polowczyk, who is heading FEMA’s supply -chain task force, was similarly effusive, saying in a statement that the task force’s initial mission was to “find more product around the globe to buy time to increase domestic production,” and that the volunteers were critical in that effort.
Philip Rucker contributed to this report.