CDC contracting shines in response to Ebola outbreak

DALLAS — There are plenty of examples why federal procurement doesn’t work. But in times of emergency, the real talents of the community come out.

Just look at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Just about a year ago, the CDC jumped into the response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

In a short amount of time, the CDC received about $1 billion in emergency funding and had to process about 700 transactions before deploying people and equipment to the affected regions.

Jeff Napier, the CDC’s director of the Office of Acquisition Services, said the operations center had only three full-time contracting officers to handle many of these emergency actions.

“Emergency management is part and parcel to what we do in public health, but this crisis is much larger than anything else we’ve done in the past. It’s a sustained action,” Napier said Monday, during a panel discussion at the National Contract Management Association’s World Congress. “I’ve had three contracting officers assigned full-time to our emergency operations center. They’ve already been there more than a year and will probably be there another year, just providing expert advice, trying to help write statements of work. We sort of are reaching out of our traditional role and trying to help that customer as early as we can write a statement of work that will be successful for that event.”

Napier said there are added challenges to do acquisition internationally, both from a staffing and a process perspective.

But Napier said he’s proud of how CDC’s contracting officers have stepped up to the challenge.

“In the early stages of that event, it was dangerous in country,” he said. “Even in a business where medical and bio dangers are something we deal with every day, it gave the CDC plenty of pause. One of the very first things that we were requested to do was to figure out how could we get a couple of contracting officers into one of the three infected countries. We were going to set up a hub in Liberia at the time. So we put out just a really soft call to see who might be interested in going. But I never had any problem getting volunteers for that job. In fact, I had six the first day and this was at the height when it was really unknown and there were many problems in the field and there was danger. The 1102 community rose to a level that I didn’t even expect.”

The CDC’s experience in Africa also is giving it the opportunity to refine its emergency support functions.

Traditionally, Napier said, CDC relies on its purchase cards for emergency procurements, including some in excess of $1 million.

He said the Ebola crisis also helped the agency add some international experience to its mix of expertise.

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