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Government watchdog says HHS at ‘high risk’ of bungling public health crises

The Health and Human Services Department has failed to fix long-standing problems in its pandemic response, putting its ability to respond to future emergencies in jeopardy, the Government Accountability Office said in a report Thursday.

The watchdog agency included HHS on its “High Risk List” of federal departments and programs susceptible to mismanagement and abuse without significant changes, such as drug and medical product oversight. Three dozen agencies and federal programs are currently on the list.

Several years of “leadership shortcomings” at HHS “undermine many of its efforts to deal a wide range of public health challenges, including the coronavirus pandemic and extreme weather events,” Comptroller General Gene Dodaro said in a statement.

The deficiencies include failures to outline roles and responsibilities for other entities involved in a response; difficulties collecting and analyzing data; and problems clearly communicating health messages to the public.

GAO also criticized the department for not working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to shore up medical supply chains and said the administration only just began a comprehensive strategy for widespread public Covid-19 testing it recommended in January 2021.

“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.”

The GAO report comes amid congressional calls to assess the department’s pandemic response and establish new guardrails for future emergencies. Senate health committee Chair Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and ranking Republican Richard Burr (R-N.C.) proposed legislation Tuesday that, among other things, 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.

The Prevent Pandemics Act would also make the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director subject to Senate confirmation for the first time and mandate that the agency release four-year strategy reports.

The GAO assessment also lands as President Joe Biden’s approval ratings are being weighed down by the pandemic response: Just over 30 percent of voters highly approved of his first-year performance in a recent POLITICO/Morning Consult poll; 37 percent rated it an “F.”

The president entered office with the promise to end the pandemic, but with the swell of the Omicron variant, new Covid-19 cases have surged to new highs while hospitalizations increased twofold at the end of the year, GAO said.

Yet HHS problems have festered for years and through other public health crises including the H1N1 pandemic and Zika virus outbreak, GAO said.

“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 organization wrote.

HHS received roughly $484 billion through six Covid-19 relief laws allotting funds for vaccine and drug development, provider and child care aid, testing support and other critical supplies. The agency told GAO it has allocated $387 billion and spent about $226 billion. But HHS has also resisted laying out spending timelines, even flexible ones, GAO said.

The government watchdog racked up 115 recommendations for the health department since 2007, 72 of which it said are still open.

GAO also recommended in the report that the administration bolster nutrition assistance, emergency rental assistance and tax relief for businesses as part of its Covid-19 response.

The latest report is GAO’s ninth review of the pandemic response under the CARES Act.

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