Jan 28, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Federal watchdog says HHS is failing in its response to crises

Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra speaking in the White House in December 2021.

Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra speaking in the White House in December 2021. Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) harshly criticized leaders of Health and Human Services (HHS) in a review on the coronavirus pandemic published Thursday, saying the department is not prepared to adequately respond to public health emergencies, such as weather disasters or bioterrorism attacks.

Driving the new: The GAO added HHS to its "high risk list," meaning it believes the department is vulnerable to waste, fraud, abuse or mismanagement, or is in need of transformation.

  • There are currently over three dozen government agencies or programs on GAO's high risk list.

What they're saying: The GAO said HHS has failed to designate roles and responsibilities for other governmental entities during emergencies, struggled to collect data to inform decision-making and stumbled in clearly communicating health messages to the public.

  • "If left unaddressed, these deficiencies will continue to hamper the nation’s ability to be prepared for, and effectively respond to, future threats," the watchdog 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 we have identified particularly concerning."

The big picture: The GAO has highlighted "persistent deficiencies" in HHS's ability to prepare for and respond to public health disasters over several years.

  • While the department has addressed some of the GAO's recommended changes to leadership and emergency coordination, the government watchdog said Thursday that at least 72 proposal remain unresolved.
  • HHS did not immediately respond to Axios' request for comment.

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