7/28/20 Clarion Ledger: Take action: Bipartisan proposal on PPE could save lives, taxpayer dollars

    Take action: Bipartisan proposal on PPE could save lives, taxpayer dollars

Ben Smilowitz

Guest columnist

Clarion Ledger

If Congress doesn’t act now, the high costs for personal protective equipment will continue to squeeze local cities, counties, towns, fire departments, schools and business across Mississippi. And with their primary focus on campaigning for reelection, Congress may not have another opportunity to act before the November elections.

Meanwhile, some of the most conservative governors, such as Gov. Hutchinson, R-Arkansas, are calling on the White House to fully leverage the Defense Production Act. But it’s already August and we are more than five months into this pandemic.

Ben Smilowitz
Hurricane season is already here, and Mississippi is dangerously vulnerable. How will we handle mass sheltering and feeding operations in the era of COVID-19? The entire Red Cross volunteer system is incredibly fragile as the average volunteer age is over 60 years old and vulnerable to COVID-19. Unlike past years, we cannot expect hundreds of volunteers to fly into the region from across the country. We need a plan B.

The State Emergency Production Act of 2020 is a bipartisan solution that gives Mississippi more control, allows the state to increase its resiliency, lower costs, boost its economy, increase jobs, and save taxpayer dollars. But Mississippi cannot act alone. Congress must first delegate authority to allow the state to leverage two key provisions of the Defense Production Act, and only to be utilized by the state during federally declared disasters, emergencies, or with a federal waiver.

I founded the nonprofit Disaster Accountability Project after Hurricane Katrina to improve disaster relief and offer solutions like this. In fact, our proposed bill has been called “novel” by congressional offices on both sides of the aisle. While this solution can help Mississippi right now, it will also be very useful after future hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and other disasters.

Since Katrina, the responsibilities shouldered by states after disasters have increased, and this proposal offers states two useful tools that can help them mitigate the negative economic shocks of disasters, source more goods from in-state producers and suppliers, lower costs for first responders, and save taxpayer dollars.

We are proposing that Mississippi be able to prioritize contracts for critical goods in-state, allowing the state to purchase items directly from producers instead of being forced to compete with private sector supply chains across the country. In addition, the state should be able to increase production of critical goods and even leverage existing federal disaster dollars to help producers in Mississippi meet both in-state and national demand. More PPE production in Mississippi means more jobs and lives saved.

More affordable critical goods would benefit the economy in multiple ways. If dozens of states increase production of critical goods, such as N95 masks and other types of PPE, we would increase our national supply, front-line workers would be better protected, and costs for fire departments, schools, and businesses would go down.

None of this is possible without the support of Mississippi’s congressional delegation in Washington. Our bipartisan proposal should be offered as an amendment to the current aid bill negotiations. This proposal requires no new federal dollars and it will benefit front-line workers across Mississippi. It will help the state now and after future hurricanes.

Time is of the essence. The current COVID-19 aid bill under consideration before Congress may be the last opportunity for Congress to act on reducing the costs of PPE before a lame-duck session after the election. We can do better and work together to save both lives and precious taxpayer dollars right now.

Ben Smilowitz is the executive director of the Disaster Accountability Project. Smilowitz started the nonprofit after volunteering in Biloxi and Gulfport after Hurricane Katrina.