HHS at ‘High Risk’ of Mismanaging a Future Public Health Emergency, Watchdog Warns
Health Care

HHS at ‘High Risk’ of Mismanaging a Future Public Health Emergency, Watchdog Warns

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The Department of Health and Human Services has failed to address long-standing weaknesses in its pandemic preparedness and response efforts, ignoring numerous recommended fixes, a government watchdog reported Thursday, warning that the ongoing problems mean the department is at “high risk” of mismanaging future emergencies.

“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,” the Government Accountability Office said in a report to Congress, its ninth analysis of pandemic relief under the 2020 CARES Act.

The report says that “persistent deficiencies” in how HHS handles public health emergencies have hindered the national response to the current pandemic and previous threats.

Those deficiencies include failures to establish clear roles for and understanding the limitations of various partners involved in response efforts; problems collecting and analyzing data; and shortcomings in communicating with the public and building trust.

The problems have spanned many years and multiple administrations. GAO said that since 2007 it has made 115 recommendations to HHS regarding its leadership and coordination of public health emergencies — but 72 of those have yet to be addressed. The lingering issues could spell trouble for the future, the report warns. “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,” it says.

To help ensure that Congress and the executive branch pay attention to the problems, the GAO said it was adding HHS preparedness and response leadership to its high-risk list of parts of the federal government susceptible to waste, fraud, abuse or mismanagement or otherwise needing “transformation.” The list now includes 36 agencies and programs.

What’s next: HHS officials said Thursday that they were reviewing the report and were working to address the problems. "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. "We’re in a much stronger position than we were a year ago."

Politico’s Sarah Owermohle reports that the GAO’s critical assessment of HHS comes just days after Senate health committee Chair Patty Murray (D-WA) and ranking Republican Richard Burr (R-NC) proposed legislation to address pandemic preparedness. Their bill “would require HHS secretaries to appoint a committee to advise on messaging during public health crises and would require a bipartisan-appointed 9/11-style commission to assess the Covid-19 response,” Owermohle notes.