The outbreak of the novel coronavirus has thrust this great nation into a tenuous time of hardship. Nevertheless, we will overcome this challenge through perseverance, teamwork, and American ingenuity. Healthcare professionals are working day and night to care for those infected, while biopharmaceutical industry scientists work to develop treatments and a vaccine. Additionally, our political leaders continue to debate policy measures to ease the burden of this pandemic and aid in the development and distribution of care. While I support these efforts and understand their challenges, I am deeply troubled by recent news that the Trump Administration plans on issuing a ‘Buy American’ executive order requiring several agencies, including the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), to purchase American-made materials, medicines, and vaccines.
Having served in combat in Vietnam and as the Secretary of Veterans Affairs under President George W. Bush, it has been my life’s honor to advocate and provide support for those men and women who answered the call of duty. I understand and respect the intention of the president’s order to stimulate our stalling economy. However, this Buy American order would put the lives of countless veterans in jeopardy by imposing significant changes to biopharmaceutical supply chains during a public health crisis.
Our nation’s veterans often return with injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder that requires undisrupted access to prescription medication as well as other treatments and therapy. Additionally, many of those that rely on the VA are 65 and older and face chronic conditions that plague aging Americans. In my time at the VA, I witnessed how wholesale changes to our healthcare system can undermine already working programs and substantially restrict access to vital care options. I fear this executive order would similarly lead to rationed supplies, diminished access to and quality of care, not to mention an overwhelmed healthcare system. Therefore, I urge the administration to understand that now is not the time for a seismic shift and upending of long-established supply chains.
Furthermore, it is important to note that even though most of the medicines Americans take today are made here in the U.S., many of these medicines’ active components (known as active pharmaceutical ingredients, or API) are sourced from other countries. According to the Food and Drug Administration, only approximately 28 percent of facilities that manufacture APIs are in the United States.
So, while in theory, requiring the purchase of only American-made materials sounds good, an attempt to reorder these supply chains would be catastrophic. Prescriptions would be rationed, and treatment delayed as veterans wait for companies to establish new domestic production lines. Simply put, it is just not a feasible option given the current state of the nation and dire need for drug access in our country and around the world.
We owe it to our nation’s veterans and the American people to be a beacon of hope and stability during this health crisis. We cannot afford the level of uncertainty that will stem from upending the supply chain with this rash political action. I urge the administration to rethink this Buy American executive order and revisit an examination of the biopharmaceutical supply chain only once this pandemic is solved. If we continue to work together and support global collaboration, I believe we will develop a vaccine and show the world, once again, the power of American innovation.
Anthony Principi served as Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs 2001-2005.