Healthcare

Government watchdog faults HHS leadership for sustained public health crisis failures

AP.

The Department of Health and Human Services has failed to correct longstanding issues related to its ability to respond to public health emergencies, according to a nonpartisan government watchdog report.

The Government Accountability Office on Thursday added HHS to its “High Risk List” of federal departments and programs susceptible to waste, fraud and abuse without significant changes

“For over a decade, we have found issues with how HHS’s leadership prepares for and responds to emergencies, including COVID-19, other infectious diseases, and extreme weather events, such as hurricanes,” GAO wrote in the report.

“If left unaddressed, these deficiencies will continue to hamper the nation’s ability to be prepared for, and effectively respond to, future threats. As devastating as the COVID-19 pandemic has been, more frequent extreme weather events, new viruses, and bad actors who threaten to cause intentional harm loom, making the deficiencies we have identified particularly concerning,” the report added.

The deficiencies include failure to establish clear roles and responsibilities for other partners involved in the pandemic or disaster response; issues collecting and analyzing data to inform decisionmaking; difficulties providing clear and consistent communication to key partners and the public; and problems establishing transparency and accountability to help ensure program integrity and build public trust.

Specifically, the report faulted HHS for working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to develop plans to mitigate supply chain shortages for the remainder of the pandemic.

GAO also criticized the agency because it has yet to develop a comprehensive and publicly available testing strategy, which GAO recommended it do in January 2021. 

In total, GAO said it gave the agency 115 different recommendations since fiscal year 2007; 72 of those remain open.

The GAO report is part of a series of congressionally mandated evaluations of the government’s pandemic response. 

It comes as two leading bipartisan senators this week released draft legislation that would overhaul how HHS responds to future pandemics and establish a 9/11 Commission-style investigation into the COVID-19 response. 

The measure from Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.) would not directly provide new funding for pandemic preparedness, though it would authorize some programs that could be funded as part of the annual appropriations process.  

It would also make the CDC director a Senate-confirmed position and require the agency to develop a strategic plan every four years.

GAO said it recognizes that “numerous public health emergencies converging and occurring simultaneously can present significant challenges and tax already strained resources.”

However, the report concluded, “waiting to address the deficiencies we have identified in HHS’s leadership and coordination of public health emergencies is not an option as it is not possible to know precisely when the next threat will occur; only that it will come.”

Tags COVID-19 COVID-19 testing GAO report HHS Patty Murray Public health Richard Burr

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