Officials at the Department of Health and Human Services misused millions of dollars provided by lawmakers to fund vaccine research and preparedness efforts for public health threats like Ebola and Covid-19, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel said Wednesday in letters to President Biden and Congress.
Research funds for the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) were used for a variety of unrelated expenses, including administrative costs, news subscriptions, legal services, the removal of office furniture and the salaries of outside personnel. The raiding of BARDA funds for other purposes was so common, according to a report from the HHS Office of Inspector General, that it was given a name inside the agency: “Bank of BARDA.”
The misuse of funds dates back to at least fiscal year 2010, spanning the Obama and Trump administrations.
The investigation by the HHS inspector general was launched after a whistleblower complaint to the Office of Special Counsel alleged that officials in the office of the assistant secretary for preparedness and response (ASPR) were misappropriating funds. The inspector general’s 223-page report found that many of the claims were true and that the tapping of research funds for other purposes violated one federal law covering congressionally appropriated money and potentially violated another.
The report does not estimate the total amount of misappropriated funds, but it claims that, as recently as fiscal year 2019, about $25 million in BARDA research funding was improperly used for other purposes, the Office of Special Counsel said in a statement. It added that from 2007 to 2016, HHS had failed to account for $517.8 million in administrative spending. The inspector general also found that between fiscal years 2013 and 2017, BARDA funds were used to pay at least $897,491 in salaries of individuals who did not actually work for BARDA.
“I am deeply concerned about ASPR’s apparent misuse of millions of dollars in funding meant for public health emergencies like the one our country is currently facing with the COVID-19 pandemic,” Special Counsel Henry Kerner wrote in his letter to President Biden. “Equally concerning is how widespread and well-known this practice appeared to be for nearly a decade.”
In a statement, Kerner urged Congress and HHS to take immediate steps “to ensure funding for public health emergencies can no longer be used as a slush-fund for unrelated expenses." Kerner said in his letter to Biden that HHS is reviewing the use of research funds and has also engaged an accounting firm to conduct an audit, with results expected by the summer.
Nicole Lurie, the Obama administration’s top emergency-preparedness official, who was named in the whistleblower complaint, told The Washington Post that the agency’s use of BARDA funds was appropriate. “All expenditures were done in a routine way,” Lurie said, adding, “BARDA was part of ASPR and had a shared mission and used common resources.”
Lurie told the Post that the inspector general has criticized spending decisions that helped expedite dozens of medical products to help fight public health emergencies.