Watchdog says major federal health agency failed in crisis

Federal regulators said Thursday that the government’s key health agencies have failed in their responsibilities to lead the nation’s response to public health emergencies, including the coronavirus pandemic, extreme weather disasters and even a potential bioterrorist attack.

The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office said it designated the Department of Health and Human Services’ leadership and coordination of public health emergencies as a “high-risk” area of ??government. While the designation won’t be penalized immediately, it sends a signal to Congress that lawmakers need to pay special attention to the agency’s operations.

In its report, the GAO said HHS’ longstanding “persistent deficiencies” “hampered the nation’s response to the current COVID-19 pandemic and past threats.” “If not addressed, these deficiencies will continue to hinder the nation’s ability to prepare for and respond effectively to future threats.”

The GAO said deficiencies included managing the healthcare supply chain, coordinating with federal and state agencies, and providing clear and consistent communication to the public and the healthcare community.

The report is part of GAO’s assessment of the government’s response to the pandemic. It was released as bipartisan senators introduced draft legislation this week calling for a close study of the pandemic and a comprehensive review of HHS’ capacity.

Among the priorities of lawmakers are closer congressional oversight of the HHS agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, building supply chains and improving coordination at the top of HHS. Some of these address issues raised by the GAO report.

The report did not place blame on individual officials in the current or previous administration.

“We’re in a much stronger position than we were a year ago,” department spokeswoman Sarah Lowenheim said in a statement. She added: “We look forward to reading GAO’s feedback on these important issues, and as we look forward to it. Share the progress of this whole-of-government effort as we continue to work to ensure the American people are protected from future health-related emergencies.”

Not a Modern Healthcare subscriber? Register today.

GAO said that of the 115 recommendations to HHS on public health emergencies over the past 15 years, 72 have not yet been fully implemented.

Last year, the White House released a plan to update the pandemic response, but did not propose addressing serious flaws. Instead, it calls for increased public health capacity to be on par with the nation’s military defense response.

Under the Biden and Trump administrations, HHS has relegated to the White House in the management of the coronavirus pandemic, even as scientists, doctors, disease detectives and service providers do most of the day-to-day work.

The GAO said it found “persistent deficiencies” in five main areas. They include establishing clear roles and responsibilities for federal, state and local agencies, collecting and analyzing data to inform policymakers, and providing clear and consistent communications to the public.

For example, the GAO said the department has yet to make recommendations to address supply chain issues, including the availability of diagnostic tests, from 2020.

Increasing production of at-home COVID-19 testing has become a White House priority in recent weeks.

The GAO concluded that data collection and analysis has been a key weakness of the government since the beginning of the pandemic. As a result, policymakers have only a partial or late view of certain developments.

Back in 2010, Congress required HHS to create a nationwide “public health situational awareness” surveillance system. But more than 10 years later, that’s still not done, which the GAO said has forced policymakers to rely on data collected by thousands of state health departments and labs, as well as multiple federal agencies, which have different capabilities and protocols for processing the information.

The regulator also found that HHS and its agencies had an “ambiguous and inconsistent communication” pattern during public health emergencies, not only with ordinary citizens, but also with their state and federal counterparts.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many Americans are confused by the CDC’s shift guidance on what they can do to protect themselves and those they interact with.

“The American people have stopped listening to the CDC because of their guidance,” Sen. Richard Burr, RN.C., said this week as he released bipartisan legislation to overhaul the government’s pandemic response. People are confused and contradictory – it makes sense.”

“The pain of this pandemic is unforgettable, and we have a responsibility to make sure its lessons are unforgettable,” said Senator Patty Murray, a Democrat who wrote the measure with Burr.

Source link