A top physician at the Baystate Health medical system in Western Massachusetts says he was questioned by the FBI as he was buying badly needed personal protective equipment, offering a detailed glimpse into the difficulties faced by hospitals as they try to navigate supply shortages amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Dr. Andrew W. Artenstein, who is chief physician executive at the system that includes Springfield’s Baystate Medical Center, described the maddening process of buying equipment in an account published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
“Protecting our caregivers is essential so that these talented professionals can safely provide compassionate care to our patients,” Artenstein wrote. “Yet we continue to be stymied by a lack of personal protective equipment, and the cavalry does not appear to be coming.”
Artenstein wrote that the encounter with the federal agents was part of a quest for gear that “might have made for an entertaining tale at a cocktail party, had the success of our mission not been so critical.”
In an interview with the Globe, Artenstein said that in a career that included a decade of active duty as as a physician in the US Army, he has never been on such an involved mission to supply his staff.
“I’ve never experienced anything like this. I’ve certainly never been involved at this level of the supply chain, and I can tell you, it’s very foreign for most physicians and most physician leaders,” he said.
He said he has stepped in to help his procurement team because of the scale of the emergency. It has not been easy.
“Deals, some bizarre and convoluted, and many involving large sums of money, have dissolved at the last minute when we were outbid or outmuscled, sometimes by the federal government,” Artenstein wrote in the article.
Finally, a lead “from an acquaintance of a friend of a team member” came through: It looked as though Baystate would be able to buy a large shipment of respirators and face masks. They would cost more than five times what the organization would normally pay, he said, but it was a decent deal compared with what other sellers are now charging.
The supply team received samples to be sure they would fit properly, but Artenstein said he wanted to inspect the final shipment before buying it ― just to be sure. Four of his team members flew to the mid-Atlantic April 8 to receive the masks, and Artenstein followed by car to make the final call on whether to buy it.
“Two semi-trailer trucks, cleverly marked as food-service vehicles, met us at the warehouse,” Artenstein wrote. “When fully loaded, the trucks would take two distinct routes back to Massachusetts to minimize the chances that their contents would be detained or redirected.”
In retrospect, he told the Globe, the cloak-and-dagger move with the trucks may have been overkill, but he believes it was worth doing. He noted that the equipment remains under 24-hour guard, which is normal for drugs, but not for protective gear.
“The concern was that somewhere, at some point some ... authority or a regulatory body might have looked to try to seize the equipment,” he said. “It might have been overstated, but that’s the way we felt.”
Just before the team arrived, Baystate learned that the shipment would include just a quarter of what they had ordered. But they decided to go anyway. After inspecting a few boxes, Artenstein wrote, he was ready to pull the trigger.
That’s when two FBI agents showed up, Artenstein said, and asked for assurances that he was who he said he was, and that the equipment would really go to help front-line workers.
“They were good guys. And I mean that in the broad sense,” he told the Globe. “They were trying to do their jobs and make sure this got to places where it was really needed.”
The agents let the Baystate team take the equipment and drive away, but Artenstein said that on the way back to Massachusetts, he was told that US Department of Homeland Security was still considering redirecting the shipment.
Artenstein got in touch with US Representative Richard Neal, a Democrat whose district includes Springfield, and Neal said he was able to get the equipment released through a call to the US Department of Health and Human Services.
“It was a tense period there for a few hours there,” Neal, who chairs the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, told the Globe. He said he relayed to federal officials that “there are a lot of lives that could be on the line because of this, and I wanted that equipment moved now.”
The FBI said in a statement that it is working “to ensure PPE is not being unlawfully distributed or hoarded.” Homeland Security representatives could not be reached to comment.
Artenstein told the Globe that he believes Baystate is seeing its coronavirus cases begin to plateau. It said April 12 it had 160 patients with COVID-19, and Artenstein said Sunday that the number had declined slightly.
But even with the shipment of masks in hand, Artenstein said his staff still needs supplies including protective gowns. He doesn’t know what he’ll have to do to procure them ― he’s still shaking his head over the last deal.
“Did I foresee, as a health-system leader working in a rich, highly developed country with state-of-the-art science and technology and incredible talent, that my organization would ever be faced with such a set of circumstances?” he wrote in the article. “Of course not.”