News | Jan. 22, 2021

Patient care a priority for customer operations team fulfilling DOD COVID-19 orders

By Beth Reece 

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of 11 stories highlighting individual and team contributions to DLA’s pandemic support.)

Behind every order for COVID-19 supplies, every question about shipment status or query on stock availability, there’s a person. So believes Nora Steigerwalt and her customer operations staff in the Defense Logistics Agency Troop Support’s medical supply chain.

“Everything we do comes down to patient care and safety. The [Defense Department] medical logistics community has always been tightknit and collaborative, and that’s paying off now as we work together to gather customer requirements and get supplies to patient facilities,” she said. 

Steigerwalt’s 100-member team is the customer-facing element of DLA Troop Support’s medical group, which also includes supplier and medical readiness teams that create and manage contracts. Until the pandemic, 90% percent of DLA’s medical business was conducted through e-commerce with customers ordering items from electronic catalogs and receiving them through direct shipments from prime vendors. That changed as demands soared and prime vendors had access to as little as 30% of the material they previously handled, Steigerwalt said.

“When material wasn’t available through e-commerce channels we had to quickly revert to bulk buying and putting supplies back in our DLA depots, and it was a huge challenge getting customers to use a different ordering process,” she added.

Tailored vendor logistics specialists educated customers on how to order through DLA channels rather than e-commerce, while elevating urgent requirements, updating delivery statuses and communicating emerging needs to contracting staff. Greta Collier, a clinician on Steigerwalt’s staff, also worked with the Defense Health Agency to determine whether hundreds of items under consideration for purchase were acceptable for DOD health care facilities. At the same time, employees vetted customer orders by verifying that requirements were in support of medical operations. Part of the goal, Steigeralt said, was ensuring customers weren’t ordering limited medical and surgical items like N95 masks for the general population.

The customer operations team allocated orders based on guidelines set by the Defense Medical Logistics Enterprise Prioritization and Allocation Board led by DHA and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. 

“Since we didn’t have enough to fulfil all the requirements, the prioritization board was a mechanism to look at on-hand balances at each health site, determine whether they were in a hot zone and prioritize which facility received supplies,” Steigerwalt said, emphasizing that DLA doesn’t make such decisions. 

Though some sites were temporarily short on some items, overall there’s been enough material to protect military medical professionals and treat patients through DHA stockpiles or new DLA contracts, she added. And since the allocation board prioritized needs throughout DOD, DLA Troop Support Commander Army Brig. Gen. Gavin Lawrence worked with DLA HQ, DHA and federal partners to also meet steady demands from the Department of Health and Human Services and Federal Emergency Management Agency without putting DOD customers’ health at risk.

Steigerwalt said team members have often worked outside their comfort zone since early February when they began answering calls day and night from customers facing the virus in South Korea.

“We’re taking COVID-19 as an example of how we can plan differently for other emergencies and even go-to-war scenarios,” she said. “We’ve learned so much in transitioning our depots to build capacity and support these large requirements, for example, and we want to use these experiences to continually grow our support.”