Congressional members question IHS over masks purchase for Navajo Nation hospitals

By:  Noel Lyn Smith

FARMINGTON — Congressional members from New Mexico and Arizona are seeking answers from the Indian Health Service over a $3 million purchase of respirator masks that may be unsuitable for use by medical workers.

They were procured from a company recently started by a former White House official.

U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich and Reps. Ben Ray Luján, Deb Haaland and Xochitl Torres Small were among those who submitted a letter to IHS Director Rear Adm. Michael Weahkee that inquires about the process used to buy the product.

ProPublica ran a story on May 22 that focused on the awarding of the federal contract to supply respirator masks to hospitals on the Navajo Nation through a company started in April by Zach Fuentes, former deputy chief of staff to President Donald Trump.

In a statement, the IHS said the contract was awarded last month by the Navajo Area IHS for one million KN95 masks after quotes were received from six vendors.

"At the time, the IHS Navajo Area determined there was no availability of masks in the U.S., and limited vendors who could supply the masks," the agency stated.

IHS spokeswoman Jennifer Buschick said today the masks have not been distributed to any facilities.

Federal lawmakers expressed concern about the process to obtain the masks and requested a full report, along with answers to questions submitted to Weahkee in a May 27 letter.

"We are particularly interested in learning the circumstances in which the contract was awarded with the IHS only 11 days after it was created to sell PPE in response to the coronavirus, and whether IHS policies and procedures and federal acquisition regulations were followed," the letter states.

New Mexico is home to four tribes and 19 pueblos, in which many have reported cases of the coronavirus.

The Navajo Nation has been severely affected, with 4,944 individuals testing positive for COVID-19 and 159 people dying from complications related to the disease as of May 27.

"As Tribes in New Mexico and Arizona continue to battle this deadly virus now and into the future, it is critical that IHS follows all federal acquisition procedures to ensure the facilities that serve tribes receive quality materials and supplies they need to keep patients and personnel safe,” the letter stated.

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The IHS said in its statement that the respirator masks are registered on the Food and Drug Administration list of medical devices but are not approved by the FDA or covered by an emergency use authorization for usage in hospital settings by health care workers.

"According to the FDA, they cannot be marketed or distributed in the U.S. as respirators. Some of the KN95 masks received have packaging that indicates: 'This product is non-medical device.' The IHS is considering its options regarding the masks.'"