Pentagon transitioning its COVID-19 acquisition task force to permanent office

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The Joint Acquisition Task Force the Pentagon set up to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t going away, even when the pandemic finally does. Defense officials have decided to turn it into a permanent assisted acquisition organization to help other federal agencies deal with complex procurement problems.

The department set up the task force earlier this year to serve as the single coordinator for the acquisition support it offered to other agencies during the COVID response. Since then, it’s executed more than $3 billion in contracts for other agencies — mostly the Department of Health and Human Services and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

But Ellen Lord, DoD’s undersecretary for acquisition and sustainment, said department leaders determined the interagency cooperation function needs to be an enduring capability. Starting in 2021, the Joint Acquisition Task Force (JATF) will become the Defense Assisted Acquisition Cell (DA2C), and will be part of the existing Joint Rapid Acquisition Cell (JRAC).

“As the JATF transitions from its current structure to a more permanent operation under the JRAC, the JATF and JRAC teams are developing a playbook to document the processes, authorities and resources needed for this and any future public health crises to which the department responds,” she told attendees at the annual COMDEF conference, held virtually this year. “The cell will continue to support DoD and interagency partners for the COVID-19 crisis and also serve as DoD’s first line for acquisition support in the event of future national emergencies.”

Stacy Cummings, the assistant secretary of Defense for acquisition enablers who’s been leading the task force, said DoD has long had well-established channels to work with FEMA to support responses to natural disasters. What it didn’t have, until recently, she said, is a centralized organization to build and maintain relationships with other federal agencies who might need assisted acquisition services.

“With our hundreds of thousands of acquisition professionals, we’re in a position to respond quickly and robustly. But we do need to have that framework and frankly, that trust, to quickly establish the ability to take the authorization and appropriation another executive branch department receives from Congress and take advantage of the depth and breadth of capability DoD can bring to a crisis,” she said. “So the lesson learned was that we need to always be thinking about how we support the interagency process and be that one stop shop.”

Besides the $3 billion in contracts the JATF helped process for end items like personal protective equipment, it also helped HHS use the new Defense Production Act authorities that department gained under the CARES Act to help build domestic production capacity for critical medical items.

Cummings said those investments currently stand at $640 million, and growing.

“We’re still in the middle of this effort, but we needed to increase domestic production or onshore production of critical medical resources that became scarce when the lines of transportation were cut as the COVID pandemic hit,” she said. “It gave us a lot to think about as far as our critical medical resources — and our dependence on foreign sources — when those transportation lines get cut.”

The Air Force played a major role in those efforts: That service serves as DoD’s designated executive agent for the Defense Production Act.

In the early days of the pandemic, while the joint task force was still being stood up, one struggle was that Defense procurement officials didn’t have a deep understanding of the supply chain for health care supplies.

Nonetheless, Maj. Gen. Cameron Holt, the deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for contracting, said they were able to advise HHS on which business arrangements made sense, using some of the same market intelligence capabilities they’d designed for the Defense industry.

“That vendor vetting capability wound up paying off big dividends. We were even able to vet some of the HHS contractors for them and quickly advise them on when not to do that deal,” Holt said in a recent interview with Federal News Network. “One example I would use: Our senior leaders got an unsolicited email from a company that looked very, very credible. They had documentation attached that was very credible looking, lots of detail and pictures and labs and all the rest of it that showed a lot of deep capabilities. We vetted that contractor and it turned out that they were not in America, as they said. They were in the Philippines, and there were international warrants out for their arrest. So we’ve turned off a lot of fraud, waste and abuse before it ever happened.”

Overall, the Defense Department has spent $17 billion so far on COVID-related contracts and agreements. And turnaround times for getting dollars on contract have moved at light speed compared to the normal pace of the Defense acquisition system.

Kim Herrington, the acting director of Defense Pricing and Contracting said about half of that amount was spent via other transaction agreements.

“A lot of our vaccine development had been done under OTAs, and on average, we’ve processed all of our [COVID] transactions in less than 30 days,” he said. “For some of those, we’ve certainly leveraged undefinitized contract actions and we’ll have to come back and negotiate price, but it really does show the urgency and the ability to quickly get things under contract.”

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