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Health care organizations ponder impact of Baltimore bridge collapse


Lack of supply chain visibility raises concerns

It’s not yet clear what impact the disruption to the Port of Baltimore could have on the shipment of medical supplies, but some delays are possible, health care leaders said. A cargo ship struck a bridge near the port, causing it to collapse early Tuesday morning.

The port has suspended deliveries from other vessels, although trucks are being processed in marine terminals. But the port said it’s unclear how long ship traffic will be suspended.

Kyle MacKinnon, senior director of operational excellence for Premier, a hospital group purchasing organization, told Medical Economics’ sister publication Chief Healthcare Executive® that the resumption of normal shipping into the port could depend on the time needed to clear debris and rebuild the bridge.

“Port operations could be impacted for many, many months,” MacKinnon said.

Todd Ebert, president and CEO of the Healthcare Supply Chain Association, said the disruption of the Port of Baltimore is likely to lead to some delays.

“Currently, any healthcare provider using a distributor in the area will likely face some impact, including delayed deliveries and restocking issues until they are able to re-route their deliveries,” Ebert said via email. “Similarly, manufacturing facilities in the area will also be impacted. Distributors and manufacturers in the area will have to continue evaluating what goes through the Baltimore port and continued diversions could impact other east coast ports as well.”

President Biden said the immediate priority was finding several missing people in the collapse, but he said the administration would work to help reopen the port and rebuild the bridge as soon as possible. “We’re going to rebuild that port,” Biden said.

Maryland Gov. Wes Moore said in February that the Port of Baltimore handled a record 52.3 million tons of foreign cargo, worth $80 billion, in 2023. Baltimore’s port has taken in more cars and trucks than any other port in the country for more than a decade, he said.

Lack of visibility

Some ships headed to Baltimore will likely go to other ports on the east coast, including Philadelphia and New York, MacKinnon said. He added that the impact on delays in receiving medical supplies or devices could take some time to gauge.

“The healthcare industry doesn't have access to visibility for what products, made by which manufacturers, are on which ships entering which U.S. ports,” MacKinnon said. “So that's a major limitation to a supply chain leader or supply chain team understanding what is the major impact here.”

The severity of the impact of the Port of Baltimore closure is to be determined. “In any event like this, we'll do supplier outreach and get a pulse for any impacts that they might be saying, whether they can confirm an impact or confirm no impact,” MacKinnon said.

Premier’s manufacturers “are contractually obligated to share if they have a major disruption,” he said. MacKinnon said he’s been getting phone calls from hospitals and health care providers seeking information about potential delays in obtaining health care supplies.

The availability of other ports in the Northeast could help alleviate delays, MacKinnon said. Moreover, the health care supply chain has become more adept at responding to disruptions.

“From both a provider and supplier standpoint, resiliency in the healthcare supply chain has learned from the COVID-19 pandemic and disruptions there,” he said. “So I think there's that silver lining. I think healthcare is very adaptable to change.”

Still, many components in medical devices, key ingredients in prescription drugs, and materials used in personal protective equipment come from other countries. In 2022, hospitals wrestled with a shortage in contrast dye, used in medical imaging, due to a COVID-related shutdown of a plant in China.

Some shortages of drugs and other medical supplies have persisted, and they’ve affected patient care, ECRI, a patient safety organization, said in an October 2023 report.

More healthcare leaders have been looking to obtain more goods from domestic suppliers. Three of four health care leaders said obtaining more products from U.S. suppliers is an important part of their supply chain strategy, a 2023 Premier survey found.

Impact on truck traffic

The loss of the Francis Scott Key Bridge is going to affect the delivery of medical supplies via truck in the Baltimore region. The bridge is part of the Baltimore beltway (Interstate 695) and Maryland officials said it typically carried more than 30,000 vehicles each day. Those trucks carrying supplies to hospitals and other healthcare providers will need to find alternate routes and may encounter traffic nightmares in the Baltimore region.

“That all now has to go round around the city and around what was once that critical pathway of the bridge,” MacKinnon said. “So I think we're looking at several, several months, potentially years, you know, for things to get back to the way that they were on Monday.”

The American Trucking Association estimated about 4,900 trucks per day would need to find new routes, NBC News reported.

While the full impact of the port closure is unclear, MacKinnon said health care organizations have refined their supply operations since the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Leaders have to continually enhance our supply chains to be even more resilient, more responsive, and more robust in the future,” MacKinnon said. “I think we're getting there. It's not a perfect system, but again, I think we're much better off than we were just a couple of years ago.”

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