Earlier this year, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in South Carolina announced that a company called ResMed had agreed to pay more than $37 million to settle allegations under the False Claims Act that it illegally paid kickbacks to promote sales of equipment used to treat sleep apnea. The case did not receive much attention at the time, but ResMed, which also produces ventilators, is now one of the companies involved in the controversy over the distribution of equipment that hospitals desperately need to save lives during the coronavirus pandemic. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and other state chief executives have been complaining about price-gouging and shipments that fail to materialize, as health systems across the country compete for a woefully inadequate supply of ventilators, some of which have reportedly been exported.
Five years ago, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services tried to plug a crucial hole in its preparations for a global pandemic, signing a $13.8 million contract with a Pennsylvania manufacturer to create a low-cost, portable, easy-to-use ventilator that could be stockpiled for emergencies. This past September, with the design of the new Trilogy Evo Universal finally cleared by the Food and Drug Administration, HHS ordered 10,000 of the ventilators for the Strategic National Stockpile at a cost of $3,280 each. But as the pandemic continues to spread across the globe, there is still not a single Trilogy Evo Universal in the stockpile. Instead, last summer, soon after the FDA’s approval, the Pennsylvania company that designed the device — a subsidiary of the Dutch appliance and technology giant Royal Philips N.V. — began selling two higher-priced commercial versions of the same ventilator around the world.
Our national priorities have displayed much the same logic as the person who jumped off a 50-story building and observed, “This isn’t so bad,” as they hurtled past the 20th floor. But just like that fool, denial works for only so long. Then splat. For decades, our leaders have invested handsomely in death, spending the majority of our annual tax payments on armaments and empire, leaving humanity and the planet to fend for themselves. Now, in a real crisis, we’re freaking out. It’s not like there weren’t warnings, either. They even came in writing — on banners, picket signs, leaflets, newspapers, even a few on TV. The very best came on the wind, like this one from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom.”