Sarah Swank

The COVID-19 pandemic and its various iterations have brought supply chain challenges to the forefront for senior living and care providers.

In the past, companies limited the supply of what they needed to have on hand with close review of expiration dates, to eliminate waste. Now, however, supply chain disruptions threaten that model and, potentially, resident care, according to healthcare attorney Sarah Swank of the global law firm Nixon Peabody. She previously was senior in-house counsel for two national healthcare systems.

The supply chain is going to be ‘hit or miss’ for the foreseeable future, Swank said.

“As we see in other industries, people are hit with COVID and they’re not able to work; that’s going to hurt production of those items or transportation of those items the same as for a grocery store,” she said. 

Staffing shortages and supply chain disruptions go hand in hand, she said. Healthcare workers often feel burned out — which Swank dubbed “compassion fatigue”— and a lack of needed resources greatly exacerbates the problem. 

“It’s not about trying to get the resources. Sometimes the resources just aren’t there,” she said.

The government can help alleviate some supply shortages, she said, by defining a product as a critical item and requiring it to be produced in the United States. Swank encouraged providers to involve themselves in discussions at the state level around the movement of supplies to critical areas, and to encourage their state representatives to advocate at the federal level.

Providers also must look out for supply chain fraud, according to Swank. 

“We saw an uptick in fraud as the pandemic struck. We saw where there were healthcare providers that ordered critical supplies that they really needed and then they didn’t show up,” she said.

Common issues, Swank said, were vendors selling the same supplies to multiple buyers, as well as price-gouging. Providers still may want to keep an eye out for anything that looks sketchy, she advised. For example, Swank said, if an organization is contracting with an entity it never has used before and the terms keep changing, or if the shipment fee keeps moving, then it’s time to have attorneys take a look at potential fraud.

“I think during times of crisis is when you’ll see things such as cybersecurity issues and supply chain fraud,” she said. “People will take advantage of critical needs in healthcare and they will try to commit fraud. As certain supplies become unavailable, healthcare providers need to keep their eye out for fraud.”