Price gouging on medical equipment risks lives, 100+ mayors call for action

Media Contacts
Matt Wellington

Former Director, Public Health Campaigns, PIRG

ProPublica investigation reveals delays, sapping of resources as government is upcharged


WASHINGTON — Across the country, government leaders and health care providers are going to extreme lengths to ensure a steady supply of gloves, masks, ventilators and other critical medical equipment as the number of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) cases skyrocket. But a new investigation by ProPublica, along with reporting by numerous other outlets, has revealed that suppliers are using the public health emergency to drive up prices exorbitantly.

According to the ProPublica story, New York, one of the states hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic, has struggled to deal with skyrocketing prices of medical equipment including:

  • 20 cents for gloves that would otherwise cost less than a nickel. 
  • $7.50 each for masks — about 15 times the usual price.
  • $2,795 for infusion pumps, more than twice the regular cost. 
  • $248,841 for a portable X-ray machine that typically sells for $30,000 to $80,000.

“Every mask and surgical glove could prevent the transmission of this dangerous virus. Every ventilator and oxygen tank could save a life. A fractured supply process is forcing states and hospitals to bid against each other to save the lives of their citizens and patients,” said Matt Wellington, Public Health Campaigns Director for U.S. PIRG. 

More than 100 mayors and county executives across 17 states sent a letter to the Trump administration on April 2nd. The letter urges the federal government to use its emergency powers under the Defense Production Act to ramp up production of critical medical supplies including ventilators and masks, and to establish a medical equipment czar charged with centrally distributing those materials. 

Mayor Dominic Sarno of Springfield, Massachusetts, issued the following statement after signing onto the letter, “This public health emergency situation has affected all of us across the nation. The needs of our cities, states, hospitals and other healthcare facilities to proactively respond to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 has put stress upon our first responders and front line personnel. It has pushed our resources to their limits. Now more than ever, we need a coordinated effort on a national scale to meet the ever growing demands of the purchasing and distribution of medical equipment.”

While the president has authorized the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Alex Azar to increase production and oversee allocation of medical equipment, to date, he has not put that authority to full use, indicating the need for an explicit directive and task force to carry out this mission.

“Unscrupulous businesses have taken advantage of the lack of federal coordination in the medical supplies chain, upcharging the government and health care providers on medical supplies, swindling taxpayers and putting lives at risk. Everyone should be coming together to save lives, not competing for life-saving equipment at exorbitant prices,” said Adam Garber, U.S. PIRG’s Consumer Watchdog.

Check out the rest of U.S. PIRG’s COVID-19-related tip guides for consumers here.