The lives of thousands of Americans who are victims of the covid-19 coronavirus are in the hands of at least four foreign companies that manufacture ventilator machines, a vital piece of hospital equipment that helps patients breath when their lungs are not able to function on their own.
The main concern of these companies is not only to meet the high demand for equipment that can cost between $20,000 to $50,000 per unit.
Some spokespersons for the firms are also on the alert after a complaint repeatedly made by the governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, that some companies are pushing the states in emergency to compete with each other in order to get the best price for the machines.
"It is an impossible situation to handle," said Cuomo. "If we don't get the equipment, we can lose lives, which we could otherwise save if we had the equipment," he added.
Cuomo cited a case in which New York State has been charged $50,000 for a ventilator that used to cost $20,000
“We are in a situation where there are 50 states competing for supplies. The federal government is now also competing for supplies. Private hospitals are also competing for supplies," said Cuomo.
The governor has not mentioned the names of the companies involved in this alleged practice, nor has he explained whether they are brokers working as intermediaries between the manufacturers and the buyers. His press office didn’t respond to messages from Univision to clarify his complaint and if there is any ongoing investigation.
Until December last year, the market for ventilators in the United States was controlled by Draeger from Germany and Getinge from Sweden, each with 29%, according to a study by the Ecri Institute, an organization that monitors the hospitality industry. Medtronic, headquartered in Ireland, has 18% of the market and Hamilton of Switzerland 16%.
Draeger declined to give an interview. A spokesperson for the company said they were very busy serving the equipment's demand.
"All our experts and task forces are working hard to meet all requests that reach us from all over the world." wrote Marion Varec.
Eric Honroth, Getinge's President for North America, told Univision that in the United States they have contracts with long-established customers such as government health entities, and hospital systems.
“We have not raised our pricing with our customers despite the increased demand for our products due to the covid-19 crisis," he said.
Medtronic and Hamilton categorically rejected the practice denounced by Cuomo.
"We find the notion of raising prices to take advantage of this situation abhorrent, and it will not be done at Medtronic," a spokesperson for the firm told Univision.
Bob Hamilton, CEO of Hamilton, assured that the company will maintain pre-pandemic price levels.
"We denounce any opportunistic utilization of this humanitarian crisis, including a raise in prices" Hamilton wrote to Univision.
Final prices for ventilators purchased by the US hospital system, whether private or public, are a closely guarded secret, according to Marcus Schabacker, president of Ecri.
Ecri advises hospitals by reviewing prices submitted by factories.
"The manufacturers are very protective of that pricing information and we don't see the final purchase order, we only see the proposal which are made to the hospitals," it said.
Schabacker explained that in recent weeks, requests from hospitals for their organization to review proposals for equipment such as ventilators have increased by 40 per cent, but he added that they haven’t seen an increase in price.
"So far we haven’t heard that hospitals complain about inflated equipment prices," he said. "We don't know where Governor Cuomo's concern comes from. It may be a specific situation for New York," he added.
A ventilator is a machine that takes over the function of breathing in a patient's body. According to Mexican pulmonologist Diego Hernández, the device inflates the lungs, allowing the patient to continue breathing and maintain oxygenation.
"We all know that if that doesn't happen, people die," said Hernández. In Mexico, where he practices as a doctor in the private hospital sector, the cost of ventilators has not risen more than 20% since the crisis started, Hernández added.
Peniley Ramírez contributed with this article