What is the Defense Production Act, and could it help slow the PPE shortage?

A Korean War-era law has been touted by several health officials, political leaders and historians as a way of getting needed supplies into the hands of medical workers


As COVID-19 has spread across the United States, critical care tools, such as ventilators, and PPE for medical workers and emergency services providers have been in short supply.

Many public policy experts and health officials have requested that the current White House administration authorize and enact the Defense Production Act (DPA), which they say would alleviate the supply strain placed on densely populated areas, and those hit hardest by the virus, such as New York City.

On March 18, President Donald Trump acknowledged the DPA but said he would not yet use the powers it provided, instead choosing to rely on the private sector to generate the needed supplies. However, on March 27, the president ordered Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar to use the law to require General Motors to accept a contract for the production of ventilators – a much-needed tool to help severely ill COVID-19 patients breathe.

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On April 2, Trump invoked the DPA in an order to 3M that allows Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf to “use any and all authority available under the Act to acquire, from any appropriate subsidiary or affiliate of 3M Company, the number of N-95 respirators that the Administrator determines to be appropriate.”

The order also included a requirement that the company stops sending respirators manufactured in the U.S. to Canada and Latin America. 

The move was met with opposition from 3M executives, who released a statement that said "ceasing all export of respirators produced in the United States would likely cause other countries to retaliate and do the same, as some have already done. If that were to occur, the net number of respirators being made available to the United States would actually decrease.”

Let’s review the Defense Production Act in greater detail.

What is the Defense Production Act?

The Defense Production Act is a federal law that was enacted on Sept. 8, 1950, at the onset of the Korean War. It includes three parts:

1. Prioritize national defense materials. The first part of the DPA requires businesses to “accept and prioritize” contracts for supplies designated as critical to national security. This section also gives the president authority to restrict hoarding or price gouging of those supplies.

2. Allocate and promote national defense. The second part of the DPA allows the president to declare, through regulation, orders or agencies, the use of materials, services and facilities to promote national defense.

3. Control civilian economy. The third part of the DPA allows the president to take control over certain sections of the private sector to ensure that supplies that are in-demand and in-need for national defense are made available. In a nutshell, it gives the president “the power to direct the production and distribution of materials that are deemed essential to national defense.”

When has the DPA been used in the past?

The law has been invoked several times:

  • During the Korean War, President Harry S. Truman established the Office of Defense Mobilization, as well as regulated steel and mining production, and allocated industrial materials that were seeing shortages.
  • In the 1980s, the DPA was used by the Department of Defense to develop new technologies, such as silicon carbide ceramics, indium phosphide and microwave power tubes.
  • President Barack Obama used the DPA in 2011 to combat Chinese cyberespionage.
  • In 2017, President Trump used the DPA to designate two different products as “critical to national defense, including “to obtain rare earth materials needed to build lasers, jet engines and armored vehicles.”

Would the DPA get PPE into the hands of first responders?

The DPA allows the president to designate certain materials or supplies as essential to national security, as well as require certain sectors of the private economy to make those supplies for the government’s use ahead of current customers, so, yes, used, to its fullest extent, the DPA would allow for more gloves, gowns, masks and N95 respirators to be manufactured.

However, timing makes a difference.

Because companies would need to retool their plants to manufacture supplies they don’t normally make, they would need time to acquire the supplies, hire additional staff and ensure the quality of the final product, all of which takes time. Meanwhile, hospitals and emergency services across the country are already having to ration their current stock of PPE, or rely on donations from local businesses.

The president has said he does not want the federal government to overstep in this situation, saying at a coronavirus press briefing, “We’re a county not based on nationalizing our business.” 

Meanwhile, fire and EMS officials are worried they won’t have the necessary supplies to sustain their members against the coming surge of medical calls.

Chief Diana Matty of the West Palm Beach Fire Department told CBS 12 news she was afraid their stockpile wouldn’t last more than a few weeks, and that includes requiring her team to ration one N95 mask for every five calls, instead of disposing them after each response.

“I’m asking a lot of my people and it’s sickening,” Matty said in the interview. “This is absolutely the most challenging and difficult thing I’ve ever been through in my entire career.”

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