Deficiencies at the US Department of Health and Human Services put the department at “high risk” of failing to respond to future public health threats as the department’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic highlighted longstanding concerns, the US Government Accountability Office, the government watchdog agency, said Thursday.
The GAO placed the department’s leadership and coordination of public health emergencies on a list of high-risk federal programs and operations that are “vulnerable to abuse, mismanagement, fraud, or waste, or need an overall transformation.”
Within HHS, a variety of agencies are involved, including the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the US Food and Drug Administration and the Office of the US Surgeon General.
The GAO said HHS belongs on its list for problems that stretch over four administrations. It identified five “persistent deficiencies” in the department’s ability to perform is lead role in preparing for, and responding to, a range of public health emergencies, and said HHS’ response to the Covid-19 pandemic highlighted longstanding concerns.
“For more than a decade, we’ve found persistent deficiencies in HHS’s leadership role preparing for and responding to public health emergencies, including COVID-19 and other infectious diseases – such as the H1N1 influenza pandemic, Zika, and Ebola – and extreme weather events, such as hurricanes,” the GAO report said.
The GAO also said the department has communication problems, trouble establishing clear roles, challenges collecting and analyzing data, problems with transparency and accountability, and fails to understand the capabilities of key partners.
HHS has taken some steps to address 115 of the recommendations the GAO has made since 2007, the watchdog group said, but it has failed to address 72 others.
The GAO said it made the high-risk designation “to help ensure the executive branch and Congress pay sustained attention in order to make additional progress in implementing GAO’s open recommendations and strengthen HHS’s leadership and coordination role for future public health emergencies.”
“Waiting to address the deficiencies we have identified in HHS’s leadership and coordination of public health emergencies is not an option as it is not possible to know precisely when the next threat will occur; only that it will come,” the report said.
One of the 72 recommendations not yet implemented involves the problems HHS has had with Covid-19 testing. While HHS has been able to procure additional tests recently, the department still has not come up with a “comprehensive and publicly available testing strategy” that the GAO recommended in January 2021.
If the problems are not addressed, the department’s deficiencies, the GAO said, will continue to hurt the country’s ability to prepare and respond to future threats. Since the country can expect to see more extreme weather events and new viruses, the deficiencies, the GAO said are “particularly concerning.”