WASHINGTON—The difficulties VA faced during the early weeks of the pandemic ensuring its facilities had an adequate supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) confirmed what agency officials have recognized for some time: The healthcare system’s supply chain system needs to be rethought.

As the first wave of the pandemic lingers and VA officials brace for an even bigger possible wave in the fall, VA leaders are looking at what they can do to shore up their procurement process in time to meet the challenge.

Testifying before the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee last month, Richard Stone, MD, VHA’s executive-in-charge, told legislators that weaknesses in VA’s system combined with the inadequacy of the global supply chain during the pandemic have combined to highlight critical problems.

“For decades, the long-acclaimed, just-in-time supply system kept shelves stocked because there was always another delivery of material on the way usually from a prime vendor who was acting as an intermediary between a manufacturer and the end user,” Stone explained. “This system has not delivered the responsiveness necessary to support the worldwide demand of health providers for medical supplies during this pandemic. More importantly, the pandemic forced us to recognize that we cannot depend on the global supply chain to equip VA just in time in a future disaster.”

Stone stressed that no VA facility ever ran out of PPE. Officials have conceded, however, that the department’s supply was far below a comfortable level and remained so at the time of the June hearing.

Stone told legislators that VA had enough PPE to last the department 30 days. Asked if that was enough, he said, “No. I believe we need to have a 60-day supply, and for a second wave we need a full six months’ supply.” 

To help accomplish this, VA plans to establish Regional Readiness Centers distributed to support the four VISN consortiums. These readiness centers would hold up to 180 days worth of critical medical supplies that could be distributed to the VISNs in times of need.

One way to ensure that those supplies would remain fresh would be for VA to be given authority to develop a partnership with manufacturers similar to DoD’s Warstopper Program. The Warstopper Program was developed following Operation Desert Storm and allows DoD to prepay for certain critical medical supplies, ensuring those supplies are available in case of a surge in need. The program also requires manufacturers to rotate supplies out as their expiration date approaches, ensuring everything remains fresh.

“We believe having that authority would be very beneficial for VA, or to be able to partner with DoD to execute that,” Stone told the committee.

Both VA officials and legislators noted that having enough supplies will do little good if the department does not have a functional supply chain management system in place. For the last year, VA has been working with DoD to adopt their Defense Management Logistics Standard Support (DMLSS) system.

This would replace VA’s current inventory management system, which was originally deployed during the 1970s. That system, Stone explained, is not up to the task of supporting the daily acquisitions decision-making that has to occur in the modern VA.

DMLSS would provide VA with the ability to track the acquisition of medical supplies and equipment, medical maintenance, property accountability, facility maintenance and construction.

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