Jan 27, 2021 - Health

OIG: HHS misused millions of dollars intended for public health threats

vaccine cultures
Vaccine vials. Photo: Punit Paranjpe/AFP via Getty Images

The U.S. Office of Special Counsel alerted the White House and Congress on Wednesday of an investigation that found the Department of Health and Human Services misused millions of dollars that were budgeted for vaccine research and public health emergencies for Ebola, Zika and now the COVID-19 pandemic.

Why it matters: The more than 200-page investigation corroborated claims from a whistleblower, showing the agency's violation of the Purpose Statute spanned both the Obama and Trump administrations and paid for unrelated projects like salaries, news subscriptions and the removal of office furniture.

The state of play: A whistleblower complaint in 2018 alleged the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response had been misusing money since 2010 that Congress had intended for the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority to use for the development of vaccines, drugs and other therapies. Staff frequently referred to the research arm as the "bank of BARDA."

The investigation is still calculating the total amount of funds misspent, but as recently as fiscal year 2019, approximately $25 million was taken from BARDA’s Advanced Research and Development programs and improperly given to the assistant secretary's office, the report says.

  • The inspector general found that between fiscal years 2013 and 2017, BARDA paid $897,491 for the salaries of staff who did not actually work for the agency.
  • The office also flagged the assistant secretary’s office for not providing adequate details to Congress on how BARDA spent $517 million in “management and administrative” costs over a decade.

What they're saying: “I am deeply concerned about [the] 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 a letter to President Biden on Wednesday.

  • "Equally concerning is how widespread and well-known this practice appeared to be for nearly a decade.”

What's next: The agency estimates it will complete this review by this summer. HHS is doing an internal review to determine whether it violated the Antideficiency Act, another law related to misuse of federal funds, according to Kerner's letter.

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