Senators probe Medline about ‘Project Air Bridge,’ say ‘the American people need an explanation’

The venture involves delivering medical supplies around the country, but concerns have been raised about how goods are distributed and financial relationships with the firms. Medline is headquartered in Northfield.

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Medline CEO Charles Mills at a meeting in March at the White House.

Medline CEO Charles Mills at a meeting in March at the White House.

AFP/Getty Images file photo

Two U.S. senators are probing Northfield-based Medline Industries as well as other firms involved in a Trump administration venture branded “Project Air Bridge,” which flies in to the U.S. vital COVID-19 medical supplies that are in short supply.

Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Richard Blumenthal say the program operates “with little to no transparency.”

Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat who ran for president, tweeted on April 27: “Project Air Bridge is Jared Kushner’s secretive public-private partnership for COVID-19 supplies – but it’s failing. States can’t get equipment & nobody’s explaining how the project works. @SenBlumenthal & I want answers from the participating suppliers.”

That same day, Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, tweeted: “Trump seems to be playing politics again with public health — misdistributing scarce medical supplies. @SenWarren & I demand transparency on Project Air Bridge & how it works.”

Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and a White House senior adviser, is identified in a variety of news reports as the central player in launching Project Air Bridge in March. A key feature is using companies, including Medline, to distribute the medical supplies nationwide.

The senators are pressing Medline for a list of all supplies delivered via Project Air Bridge and all recipients, whether state or local governments, hospitals or medical systems or other clients.

Medline Industries CEO Charlie Mills was at the White House on March 29 for a meeting of coronavirus supply chain distributors with President Donald Trump. The firm is among the nation’s largest privately-held health care manufacturers and distributors.

The firm — once in the news for its ethylene oxide environmental issues at its Waukegan sterilization facility — is making masks, gloves and sanitizers in Lake County. The Waukegan facility is now reopened and with new emissions control equipment is sterilizing the high- grade N95 masks in short supply.

Medline Industries in Waukegan.

Medline Industries in Waukegan.

Provided

On April 27, Warren and Blumenthal sent a letter to Mills, asking about “your company’s interactions” with the White House Coronavirus Task Force, the Federal Emergency Management Agency “and other executive branch entities distributing medical supplies during the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.”

The letter also stated that “the American people need an explanation for how these supplies are obtained, priced, and distributed through Project Air Bridge. Unfortunately, neither the administration nor your company has explained critical details, such as the content of any existing contracts or financial agreements.”

“Between reports of shortages across the country, seizures of supplies by the government, and outrageous prices, there is an extraordinary level of confusion and dismay about the current state of the medical supply chain.”

The senators told the executives the administration is “stonewalling” about Project Air Bridge and requested supply chain information the companies are in a position to know.

The senators wanted replies by Friday. Medline spokesman Jesse Greenberg told the Chicago Sun-Times on Friday, “I decline to respond at this time.”

Similar letters were sent to executives of five other Project Air Bridge companies: Cardinal Health; Concordance Healthcare Solutions; Henry Schein; McKesson; and Owens and Minor.

As of May 4, Project Air Bridge completed 112 international flights, with another 23 ready to go, according to the Department of Homeland Security. O’Hare Airport is among the destinations.

No shipments included goods intended for distribution by the state of Illinois. “We have not received anything directly from Project Air Bridge,” Jordan Abudayyeh, a spokesman for Gov. J.B. Pritzker, told the Sun-Times.

Pritzker has been in the spotlight for airlifting urgently needed supplies from overseas suppliers in cloak-and-dagger operations to avoid having items headed for the state end up sidetracked to federal supply chains.

The Trump White House frequently brags about the amount of desperately needed medical supplies from Asia that are flown into the U.S. instead of coming by ship, which is slower.

Warren and Blumenthal are concerned about how the goods are distributed, the financial relationships with the companies involved and the potential for profiteering.

The federal government pays for the supplies — masks, face shields, gowns, gloves — as well as the air freight.

According to FEMA, Medline and the other Project Air Bridge companies are required to make a priority of selling 50% of the supplies to clients in “hot spots” with the firms free to sell the rest through their “traditional channels.”

The senators in their letter asked how Medline was “selected as a participant in Project Air Bridge” as well as information about contracts or agreements.

The letter also asks what costs Medline pays “for the federal government’s transport of these items, and how does it compare to your typical costs for obtaining items from suppliers” and “how has your company distributed medical supplies” and personal protection equipment.

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