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How did we end up in a ventilator bidding war?

Marielle Segarra Apr 1, 2020
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A ventilator and other hospital equipment is seen in an emergency field hospital to aid in the COVID-19 pandemic in Central Park on March 30. Stephanie Keith/Getty Images
COVID-19

How did we end up in a ventilator bidding war?

Marielle Segarra Apr 1, 2020
A ventilator and other hospital equipment is seen in an emergency field hospital to aid in the COVID-19 pandemic in Central Park on March 30. Stephanie Keith/Getty Images
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Pretty much every day, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo says the same thing in his press briefings. The states all need ventilators and there aren’t enough, so they’ve been competing.

“You now literally will have a company call you up and say, ‘Well, California just outbid you.’ Cuomo said at a press conference Tuesday. “It’s like being on eBay, with 50 other states bidding on a ventilator.”

California bids. Illinois bids. Florida bids. New York bids.

“California rebids. That’s literally what we’re doing.” he said. “I mean, how inefficient.”

As the number of COVID-19 cases rises, states are bracing for overwhelmed hospitals where there isn’t a ventilator for everyone who needs one. That’s what’s behind this bidding war, which is driving ventilator prices sky high.

It’s common for states bid against each other for things like police cars and fire trucks and corporations.

“States competed over attracting Amazon and they compete over attracting other sorts of businesses all the time,” said Ben Brunjes, who teaches public policy at the University of Washington. 

But in an emergency situation, things are different. We’re not talking about corporate tax incentives. These are ventilators that states and hospitals desperately need. It’s life and death. And there’s no choice — each state has to keep paying whatever it takes. They’re on their own.

This is one of those war-like situations where you wouldn’t want to have 50 states bidding for defense supplies, said Bill Glasgall, head of state and local initiatives at the Volcker Alliance. “It would just make no sense when it’s a national problem.”

The Trump administration could centralize things and put a stop to the bidding war, Brunjes suggested.

“The federal government could easily step in and and say,: ‘Governors, stop bidding. We’re going to buy these things and give them to you,'” he said.

For now, states have mostly had to fend for themselves. FEMA recently got involved, but it’s essentially just joined the bidding war for ventilators — in some cases, bidding against states like New York and Massachusetts and winning. 

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

What’s the outlook for vaccine supply?

Chief executives of America’s COVID-19 vaccine makers promised in congressional testimony to deliver the doses promised to the U.S. government by summer. The projections of confidence come after months of supply chain challenges and companies falling short of year-end projections for 2020. What changed? In part, drugmakers that normally compete are now actually helping one another. This has helped solve several supply chain issues, but not all of them.

How has the pandemic changed scientific research?

Over the past year, while some scientists turned their attention to COVID-19 and creating vaccines to fight it, most others had to pause their research — and re-imagine how to do it. Social distancing, limited lab capacity — “It’s less fun, I have to say. Like, for me the big part of the science is discussing the science with other people, getting excited about projects,” said Isabella Rauch, an immunologist at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. Funding is also a big question for many.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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