HHS at “High Risk” of Mismanaging a Future Pandemic, Per GAO

This week, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a comprehensive report as part of its series of reports examining the federal government’s response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. In its latest report, GAO sets forth five recommendations relative to pandemic funding managed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), tax relief for businesses, and rental and nutrition assistance programs.

Notably, the GAO has designated HHS’ leadership and coordination of public health emergencies as a “high risk” issue. GAO has reported on HHS’ execution of its role in preparing for and responding to a range of public health emergencies and has found persistent deficiencies in its ability to perform its role. These deficiencies, according to the GAO, have hindered the nation’s response to the current COVID-19 pandemic and a variety of past threats, including the H1N1 influenza pandemic, Zika, Ebola, and extreme weather events.

The GAO notes that HHS has taken some actions to address the 115 recommendations GAO has offered related to its leadership and coordination of public health emergencies since 2007. However, 72 recommendations remain open and not acted upon, including a 2020 recommendation that HHS work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to develop plans to mitigate supply chain shortages for the remainder of the pandemic. GAO additionally recommended in January 2021 that HHS develop a comprehensive and publicly available testing strategy which has not happened, according to the report.

GAO’s previous efforts have identified deficiencies in HHS’ preparedness and response efforts in numerous areas, including: 1) establishing clear roles and responsibilities for the wide range of key federal, state, local, tribal, territorial, and nongovernmental partners; 2) collecting and analyzing complete and consistent data to inform decision making as well as future preparedness; 3) providing clear and consistent communication to key partners and the public; 4) establishing transparency and accountability to ensure program integrity and build public trust; and 5) understanding key partners’ capabilities and limitations.

With GAO designating HHS’ leadership and preparedness as a high-risk issue, it aims to help ensure the executive and legislative branches pay sustained attention in order to make additional progress in implementing GAO’s outstanding recommendations and strengthen HHS’ leadership and coordination role for future public health emergencies.

Additional information, including the full report, is available here.