white house

Strategic National Stockpile description altered online after Kushner’s remarks

The government website for the emergency repository appears to have been updated this morning.

Jared Kushner

The official government webpage for the Strategic National Stockpile was altered Friday to seemingly reflect a controversial description of the emergency repository that White House adviser Jared Kushner offered at a news conference Thursday evening.

According to a brief online summary on the Department of Health and Human Services website, the stockpile’s role “is to supplement state and local supplies during public health emergencies. Many states have products stockpiled, as well.”

But just hours earlier, the text characterized the stockpile as the “nation’s largest supply of life-saving pharmaceuticals and medical supplies for use in a public health emergency severe enough to cause local supplies to run out.”

The previous language stated that when “state, local, tribal, and territorial responders request federal assistance to support their response efforts, the stockpile ensures that the right medicines and supplies get to those who need them most during an emergency.”

Also stripped from the new summary is a sentence that affirmed the stockpile “contains enough supplies to respond to multiple large-scale emergencies simultaneously.”

The revisions come after Kushner argued at the White House coronavirus task force press briefing Thursday that the stockpile’s reserves are the property of the federal government, not the states.

“The notion of the federal stockpile was it’s supposed to be our stockpile. It’s not supposed to be states’ stockpiles that they then use,” he said. “So we’re encouraging the states to make sure that they’re assessing the needs, they’re getting the data from their local situations, and then trying to fill it with the supplies that we’ve given them.”

Katherine McKeogh, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services, said in a statement Friday that the edits to the stockpile’s webpage had been in the works prior to Kushner’s remarks.

“This is language we have been using in our messaging for weeks now,” McKeogh said. She added that the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response “first began working to update the text a week ago to more clearly explain to state and local agencies and members of the public the role of the [Strategic National Stockpile].”

Another HHS spokesperson also told POLITICO Tuesday that the role of the stockpile “is to supplement state and local supplies during public health emergencies, limited displacements, localized disasters and terrorist attacks.”

Four Democratic senators demanded Friday night that HHS’s Office of Inspector General launch an independent investigation into the change to the description of the stockpile, describing the action as “potential improper interference ... to advance a political agenda.”

“The timing of the deletion appears related to Jared Kushner’s inaccurate statement yesterday that, ‘And the notion of the Federal stockpile was it’s supposed to be our stockpile; it’s not supposed to be State stockpiles that they then use,’” wrote Sens. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii).

Dr. Ali Khan, who oversaw the stockpile as the former director of the Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response, said the differing explanations of the national inventory amounted to a matter of “semantics,” and that all tiers of government “have a cascading responsibility for disasters.”

“For all emergencies you deplete local resources & recruit new resources in an escalating hierarchy before going to the feds,” he said in a statement.

Congress authorized the creation of the national stockpile of medical supplies in the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness Response Act, which passed in 2002, nine months after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

The legislation orders the Secretary of Health and Human Services to “maintain a stockpile or stockpiles of drugs, vaccines and other biological products, medical devices, and other supplies ... to provide for the emergency health security of the United States.”

The secretary, the law says, must also “devise plans for the effective and timely supply-chain management of the stockpile, in consultation with appropriate Federal, State and local agencies, and the public and private health care infrastructure.”

The shifting definition of the stockpile’s function comes as Kushner has seized greater influence over the administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic from a new perch within the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The president’s son-in-law had until Thursday maintained a low public profile amid the federal response. But he has been working over the past month with a group of outside experts to improve testing capabilities and hasten the production and distribution of emergency supplies.

A White House spokesperson had no comment when asked whether the White House ordered the change to the stockpile’s webpage.

Oversight of the stockpile has come under increased scrutiny from health experts and lawmakers, including Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), who is urging the HHS inspector general to investigate possible mismanagement of the repository’s cache of ventilators.

Gardner also expressed confusion Friday over Kushner’s comment regarding the stockpile, telling POLITICO: “I don’t know what Kushner was talking about, what he meant. But the stockpile is for the country. And the country is made up of states in the federal government.”

President Donald Trump and his allies have repeatedly sparred with state and local authorities in recent weeks over their requests for ventilators, personal protective equipment and other critical medical supplies needed to treat those suffering from Covid-19, the illness caused by the unique coronavirus.

On Thursday, Trump tweeted that some states “have insatiable appetites & are never satisfied (politics?)," adding: “Remember, we are a backup for them. The complainers should … have been stocked up and ready long before this crisis hit.”

Trump has specifically cast doubt on New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s demands, accusing him of asking for more ventilators than the state needs and fumbling management of his own local stockpiles.

Cuomo has denied exaggerating the nature of the threat in New York, the current epicenter of the outbreak in the U.S., and explained that he is simply building up reserves of supplies across the state for when its health care systems inevitably become overwhelmed.

David Lim, Daniel Lippman and Doug Palmer contributed to this report.