Purchasing in a pandemic: Life on the front lines in Rockland County, N.Y.
Paul Brennan has been the director of purchasing for Rockland County, N.Y., for 27 years. His community has been one of the hardest hit in the COVID-19 pandemic. As such, supply chains have broken down and procurement processes have needed to be amended. Contributing editor Derek Prall spoke with Brennen on April 2 to discuss the challenges his department is facing What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.
Derek Prall: So, Rockland County is really on the front lines here as infection goes.
Paul Brennan: Correct – we’re just north of New York City, and we’ve had one of the largest outbreaks of any county in the country. Unfortunately, our county was mentioned in one of the president’s news conferences just the other day.
Prall: Yes, that whole region has been really hard hit. Generally speaking, what has been your biggest challenge as this pandemic has been progressing
Brennan: Really the biggest challenge is chasing medical supplies. Personal protective equipment is in very short supply. What’s been particularly disappointing is that you’re not getting any type of information from the major manufacturers of this equipment. You go to the major distributors and they’re getting no information. No one can give you an answer of when they’re expecting products.
Prall: Obviously there are myriad complicated reasons for this – but why is there this communication breakdown in a time when it seems so critical? Shouldn’t this be one of the highest priorities?
Brennan: You would think so, but I think the problem is that we really weren’t prepared with a central way to procure these supplies nationwide. What you’re left with is every state out there competing against every other state. Every county is competing with every county. We’re all competing with each other for the same supplies as opposed to having a more centralized approach. Our state system worked very well, but just a few days ago we got word that the state warehouse is empty, and they aren’t sure when they’ll be getting more supplies. I think the real critical thing from the federal government standpoint – I don’t think anything like this was ever planned for. You have the national stockpile of medical supplies that are strategically located throughout the country, but the way this stockpile was created and managed – it was never designed to handle a crisis affecting the whole country.
Prall: Something of this magnitude…
Brennan: Exactly. There’s been, you know, a weather event in the southeast or an earthquake or forest fire in the west and you have supplies for that – for one geographic location. It wasn’t designed for a country-wide crisis and a country-wide shortage of supplies. We need to ask the question – has “just in time” failed us? Just in time inventory is all well and good under normal circumstances, but as soon as there’s a disruption it breaks down.
Prall: Is this a problem of certain communities hoarding supplies in a sense? I mean, when you go to the grocery store and there’s no toilet paper, part of the problem is one person buying 100 rolls that they likely won’t need. Are governments doing the same thing with personal protective equipment?
Brennan: No, I don’t think anyone is hoarding because we’d all be out there beating each other up. The prices wouldn’t be going through the roof. One of the purposes of just in time from a manufacturer’s perspective is the ability to adjust quickly to demand. We’re not seeing that. We’re not seeing quality products coming to the market. Right now the market is being flooded with questionable products – you don’t know if these unknown manufacturers are making legitimate products or if these are counterfeit. We vet people every day, but pulling the trigger is difficult because you don’t know who these people are. You don’t know what you’re getting and they want money upfront. I think I put more on my p-card in the last three weeks than I did in the last three years.
Prall: So during a time of unprecedented crisis like this, have your procurement policies changed significantly?
Brennan: Well we’re certainly buying a lot more on p-cards. If a supplier has the products we need we can’t waste time to issue a purchase order and they don’t want to wait to get paid. If I have the product and you want it here’s the price, you pay me now and I’ll ship it. But at least with a procurement card, you still have a level of protection. If you make a large purchase and it doesn’t show up, at least you have some protection through the credit card company. We declared a state of emergency because we can’t adhere to the public bidding requirements right now. I don’t have time to go out and get quotes on a lot of things. If I find someone with the product I need, I need to buy it.
Prall: You need to pull the trigger.
Brennan: Right. But we’re a little worried about FEMA reimbursement for that because usually FEMA requires a public purchasing process for these supplies. We’re worried they won’t reimburse us if they don’t see multiple quotes.
Prall: Do you have any indication thus far that they might lift those requirements given the nature of this emergency?
Brennan: Not as of yet. They’re still asking for documentation of competition, and haven’t offered any updated or revised any of their requirements.
Prall: So even though you’re unsure about how reimbursement is going to work, you need to act quickly?
Brennan: Yes. Maybe it’s just the experience of being in this job for so long, but you start thinking ahead. We had to start thinking about body bags and refrigerated trailers and things of that nature. I normally buy body bags once a year for my medical examiner’s office, but some of the funeral homes have called expressing concern. I called my supplier down in Florida and they said they have 150 left. I said I’ll take them. Here’s the credit card. You always have to be thinking about not only what you need today, but what you’ll need tomorrow.
Prall: It sounds like immediacy is the name of the game. Thinking a few steps ahead is important. To do that, you need good communication not only with your procurement team but even interdepartmentally to discuss what the needs are now and how those needs will evolve.
Brennan: Yeah, communication is important. It’s even more important now because a lot of people are working remotely. When you’re in the office communication is easy, but the decentralization has been difficult. We’re using new technologies to communicate with each other. We can video chat. We have at least one conference call a day to highlight what the critical items are we’re looking for and assign buyers specific goals. We share information at the end of the day, and we have a daily supply committee conference call. We’re also getting requests from other municipalities and other agencies, and if we have anything we can help with, we share resources.
Prall: We’re all in this together, in a sense. It seems like there’s a prioritization of keeping lines of communication open, not only in the county but throughout the state. That being said, I think it’s important to share not only resources but lessons we’ve learned through this. What advice do you have for your peers?
Brennan: Something we talk about every day is that this is a marathon, not a sprint. We’re in this for the long-haul – it’s not going to be a one- or two-week thing where we’re done and we move on. This is a marathon. You need to remember to take care of yourself. A burned-out buyer can be very dangerous – bad decisions can be made. If your anxiety levels are getting a little high, don’t be afraid to take a break for a couple of hours. The pressure is constant, so you need to take the time to care for yourself. Also – look for opportunities to collaborate with your neighboring procurement departments. Purchasing together increases buying power.