Watchdog Says 'Persistent Deficiencies' at Health and Human Services Leading to Shortfalls

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has failed to address dozens of recommendations from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), leading to "persistent deficiencies" that have harmed the nation's response to COVID, prior infectious diseases and natural disasters, the GAO said in a report released Thursday.

The GAO concluded that HHS failures in the areas of data collection and analysis led to the federal government relying on state and local health department data and therefore making vital public health decisions based on partial or delayed data, according to the Associated Press.

The report also states that HHS is being placed on the GAO's High-Risk List, indicating that lawmakers and the executive branch need to pay close attention to how the department operates going forward.

The deficiencies were determined to be focused in five main areas including establishing roles for partners at different levels of federal and local governments, data collection and analysis, consistent and clear communication to the public, transparency and accountability to build public trust and understanding the capabilities of those involved in evaluating the pandemic, the report states.

"For more than a decade, GAO has reported on HHS's execution of its lead role in preparing for, and responding to, a range of public health emergencies and has found persistent deficiencies in its ability to perform this role," the report states.

Out of 115 recommendations the GAO has made to HHS related to the department's leadership and handling of public health crises over the last 15 years, the report states that as many as 72 have not been fully addressed.

One of those recommendations cited in the report is a September 2020 recommendation the GAO made that HHS should work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to address supply chain issues, especially in the medical industry.

Health and Human Services Government Accountability Office
The Government Accountability Office released a report Thursday detailing "persistent deficiencies" at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) that have impacted the U.S. response to COVID. Above, the HHS building is shown in Washington, D.C., on July 21, 2007. Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

The GAO also stated that if the issues are not addressed, they can severely impact the nation's ability to address future pandemics and natural disasters.

"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 GAO has identified particularly concerning," the report states.

The report also states that of the $484 billion in COVID relief funding HHS was given, $387 billion has been obligated, and $226 billion has been expended. In addition, GAO said HHS has resisted recommendations that the department provide timelines to Congress on how the rest of the funding will be spent.

"We share GAO's focus and urgency in battling this once-in-a-generation pandemic and desire to ensure we never again face a pandemic of this magnitude," an HHS spokesperson said, according to Politico. "We're in a much stronger position than we were a year ago."

The GAO's ninth report on the pandemic comes as several senators this week introduced legislation to evaluate the nation's response to the pandemic and alter government oversight of HHS and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the AP reported.