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Illinois adjusts on the fly to meet medical supply needs in a coronavirus ‘Wild West’

To meet the deadline of a supplier and get 1.5 million potentially life-saving N95 masks, Illinois’ assistant comptroller raced north on I-55 with a $3.4 million check. 

Deputy Gov. Christian Mitchell says his people are being told agents of foreign governments are in China with cash to make purchases directly from factories to get supplies for themselves.
Deputy Gov. Christian Mitchell says his people are being told agents of foreign governments are in China with cash to make purchases directly from factories to get supplies for themselves.
Rich Hein / Sun-Times

In a state where the government usually operates on the basis of buy now, pay later (often much, much later), the emergency of the coronavirus pandemic has required a decidedly different approach.

About two weeks ago, Illinois officials tracked down a supply of 1.5 million potentially life-saving N95 respirator masks in China through a middleman in the Chicago area and negotiated a deal to buy them.

One day before they were expecting to complete the purchase, they got a call in the morning from the supplier informing them he had to get a check to the bank by 2 p.m. that day, or the deal was off. Other bidders had surfaced.

Realizing there was no way the supplier could get to Springfield and back by the deadline, Illinois assistant comptroller Ellen Andres jumped in her car and raced north on I-55 with a check for $3,469,600.

From the other end, Jeffrey Polen, president of The Moving Concierge in Lemont, drove south. Polen isn’t in the medical supply business, but he “knows a guy,” an old friend who specializes in working with China’s factories.

As they drove, Andres and Polen arranged to meet in the parking lot of a McDonald’s restaurant just off the interstate in Dwight. They made the handoff there.

Polen made it back to his bank with 20 minutes to spare. Illinois already has received part of the mask shipment. There’s more on the way.

That’s just a taste of the “Wild West” world of emergency procurement taking place over the past several weeks as the state fights for equipment and supplies to protect frontline workers and patients in the battle against COVID-19.

Most of that work is being performed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration through a rapid-procurement strike team, pulling together procurement specialists from around state government under the auspices of the Illinois Emergency Management Agency.

As Pritzker has made clear at his daily briefings, it’s an effort made all the more difficult by the absence of a strong, coordinated White House response. That’s left Illinois competing against other states, foreign nations and even our own federal government for the same materials. They’re all looking for what we have come to know as PPE or personal protective equipment — masks, gloves, gowns and face shields — plus coronavirus testing kits and swabs and, most prized of all, ventilators to help those most seriously ill keep breathing.

There’s a separate team working just on ventilators, said Deputy Governor Christian Mitchell, who is overseeing the procurement efforts for Pritzker.

When they find what they need, they have to move immediately to complete the purchase before losing out to another bidder — even as the competition causes prices to jump to levels that would have been ridiculous just a month ago.

Keep in mind this is all taking place in an environment in which Mitchell said his people are being told agents of foreign governments are in China with cash to make purchases directly from factories to get supplies for themselves.

A few days after Andres’ race to Dwight, another comptroller’s office employee, Cortez Gillespie, was able to stay under the speed limit as he drove to a Road Ranger gas station near Minonk in central Illinois to hand off two more checks totaling $3.7 million to a representative of a Rockford supply company, beating a noon deadline for the purchase of additional masks and safety glasses.

Since then, state Comptroller Susana Mendoza said her office has been working with Illinois Treasurer Michael Frerichs to get payments out more seamlessly through wire transfers when necessary, a procedure rarely used in state government to pay vendors.

State Comptroller Susana Mendoza: “You’re seeing all these transactions that are abnormal for ridiculous amounts of money.”
State Comptroller Susana Mendoza: “You’re seeing all these transactions that are abnormal for ridiculous amounts of money.”
Ashlee Rezin Garcia / Sun-Times

Frerichs said he also has had to intervene with banks to convince them to immediately honor the “warrants” that Illinois issues to pay its bills — and not wait a week for the funds to clear. A warrant authorizes payment on demand and can be issued only if the state has the money to cover it.

“You’re seeing all these transactions that are abnormal for ridiculous amounts of money,” said Mendoza, noting that the race to get money out has to be balanced with a need to protect the state from being defrauded.

Mitchell said the procurement team is screening all of its leads, “trying to sort the wheat from the chaff as best we can.”

The greatest challenge, he said, is finding ventilators.

“That is where the bidding war is the hottest and most cutthroat,” Mitchell said.

He said there is little hope the state will have the ventilators it needs before the expected crush hits Chicago hospitals late this month.

The saddest part is that even when we find the supplies we need, that will mean someone in another state will likely have to do without.