Price gouging on needed equipment must be stopped

One of our group's leaders, a young woman who works at a hospital in Chicago, has converted her home into a makeshift mask factory - she put her sewing skills to use to create masks for the hospital's cafeteria workers, who are being allotted one mask a week. Her mask is washable and reusable. What she is doing is admirable. But it is not enough.

We are from four organizations, representing 100 religious and other not-for-profit institutions in the Chicagoland area of northern Illinois, that have mobilized locally and nationally with hospitals and local government entities to understand the needs for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and explore coordinating bulk purchases.

What has quickly become clear is that while we could quite easily identify the need for medical supplies among the many healthcare providers here in Illinois with whom we are working, the prices we (and they) were quoted by distributors were often five to 10 times higher than they were before the COVID-19 crisis began. That is the very definition of price gouging. And even when we went to purchase them, even at high prices, supplies that were offered to us were quickly being snatched away by higher bidders. Again, the very definition of price gouging.

The 3M company, for example, after being pressed by organizations affiliated with the Metro Industrial Areas Foundation and other entities, publicly issued its price list in an effort to reduce price gouging. We applauded this. What was left unsaid, however, is exactly what 3M is asking of its own distributors, how 3M is communicating those expectations to them and what are the consequences of failure to comply with 3M's expectations.

Here's what we think. 3M and other manufacturers cannot stand idly by while their critically needed lifesaving medical equipment and supplies are being resold to consumers at excessive prices. This is not only unethical, but likely illegal under at least Illinois state statutes.

We call on manufacturers like 3M to:

1. Set specific conditions for distributor conduct, including price limits and standard payment terms for N95 masks and other essential items. Companies should also announce the consequences if distributors do not adhere to the standards.

2. Help assemble a database of the worldwide available inventory of PPE and make it available to healthcare providers. This is work that besieged hospital purchasing managers and under-resourced groups are now scrambling to do.

3. Assign a top executive who reports directly to the CEO to lead a team of knowledgeable staffers readily available to facilitate transactions. Manufacturers are far better equipped to authenticate their masks than buyers.

4. Demand federal and state assistance and coordination to direct and redirect supply of N95 masks and other PPE to the most needed localities.

Here is one thing we citizens of northern Illinois can do. We can all call on the Attorney General of Illinois, Kwame Raoul, and the states attorneys of Cook, Lake, DuPage, and Kane counties to take the lead in making this kind of corporate responsibility happen. Right now. We owe it to those courageous ones of us who are on the front lines of this war.

• Kathy Pierson, of Lake Bluff, and Sheikh Hassan Mostafa Aly, imam and director of religious affairs at The Mecca Center in Willowbrook, are leaders with Illinois Metro Industrial Areas Foundation. Richard Townsell, executive director of Lawndale Christian Development Corporation, and Jacki Bakker, of Elgin, a member of Fox River Valley Initiative, also contributed to this op-ed.

Sheikh Hassan Mostafa Aly
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