ProPublica has sued the Department of Health and Human Services, claiming the agency failed to promptly process requests for records about a cache of medical supplies maintained by the federal government.
The lawsuit, filed on Thursday in U.S. District Court in New York, alleges that the delays violated the Freedom of Information Act, a law passed in 1967 whose purpose is to provide the public with information about federal agency operations.
ProPublica submitted two sets of FOIA requests in March and April, requesting records regarding the Strategic National Stockpile, which is overseen by HHS.
Management of the stockpile has come under intense scrutiny amid the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. States in dire need of medical equipment like ventilators and masks made urgent supply requests of the federal government in the first weeks of the coronavirus pandemic, only to face delays and, in some cases, receive broken, rotted equipment. And last month, senior White House adviser Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, suggested the national stockpile was primarily a federal, not state, resource.
“The lives of American medical workers, and the health of many patients and their families, have hinged on whether states and hospitals have the protective equipment they need,” said Jeremy Kutner, ProPublica’s general counsel. “It is essential that the public gets the full story of how the federal government has managed the Strategic National Stockpile during this pandemic. We expect HHS will follow the law and produce these critical documents without further delay.”
The requested records included memos by officials overseeing the stockpile regarding the distribution of materials, requests from the stockpile by states and territories, and calendars and call logs for senior officials within HHS.
In the filing, the news organization argued that “the public has been kept largely in the dark about basic facts” regarding the stockpile, including “its general condition, how its assets have been allocated among states, and even its core purpose.”
“ProPublica brings this lawsuit to obtain records that would shed light on these and other urgent, critical questions, and to vindicate the public’s right to understand and evaluate its Government’s response to the current public health crisis,” the lawsuit said.
ProPublica had asked HHS to expedite its processing of its seven FOIA requests. Of those, HHS denied expedited processing of one, and it has not responded to a query seeking to clarify the status of the other six. To date, HHS has not provided any of the requested documents.
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of ProPublica by attorneys with Ballard Spahr LLP, seeks an order granting expedited processing of the requests and an order compelling HHS to produce the records and pay its attorney fees.