Federal health agencies didn’t report political interference fearing retaliation: audit

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Employees from four agencies within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) said they did not report possible political interference in their work due to fear of retaliation and a lack of framework to report it, according to a study released by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

For its study, the GAO’s utilized “semistructured interviews and a confidential hotline” for the employees of four HHS agencies: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR).

Employees from these agencies said they observed incidents that they “perceived to be political interference,” but did not report them due to multiple reasons including fear of retaliation, uncertainty about how to report such incidents and belief that leadership was already aware.

According to the GAO, none of the four agencies that were part of its review had procedures for addressing and reporting “potential political interference in scientific decision-making,” with officials instead telling staff that these issues would be addressed internally on a case-by-case basis.

This “performance audit” by the GAO was conducted from October 2020 to April 2022 through provisions provided by the CARES Act.

The GAO noted that there have been numerous allegations of political interference since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The agency pointed to one instance in which a senior ASPR official claimed that the HHS retaliated against him after he disclosed concerns about making chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine available to the public as coronavirus treatments.

Seven recommendations were listed by the GAO to address this lack of ability to report on political interference in the agencies’ work.

The recommendations called for the secretary of the HHS as well as the directors of the CDC, FDA and NIH to “ensure that procedures for reporting and addressing potential political interference in scientific decision-making are developed and documented.”

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