Watchdog: Indian Health Service continues to mismanage property

The Indian Health Service gave its senior official in charge of property management a hefty bonus in 2008, despite the fact that millions of dollars' worth of equipment has been lost or stolen from agency facilities since 2007, according to a draft Government Accountability Office report obtained by Government Executive.

For 12 years, IHS officials have identified property management as a core problem. In June 2008, GAO reported that nearly 5,000 items worth almost $16 million went missing from 2004 to 2007. Investigators blamed management failures and weak leadership for the problems.

But in a yet-to-be-released report, the watchdog agency noted that despite these shortcomings, the official in charge of IHS' property group received a $13,000 bonus award in December 2008, and a performance rating of "exceptional."

"This award was granted five months after the July 2008 [Senate Indian Affairs Committee] hearing disclosing gross mismanagement of property under her purview," investigators said. "Despite misrepresentations that we reported on during our previous audit, the award narrative notes that she was charged with assuring cooperation with GAO during our investigation."

GAO found that between October 2007 and January 2009, 1,400 items worth about $3.5 million were lost or stolen from IHS facilities, and the agency is looking for an additional $14.5 million in items that could be added to the list. An IHS spokesman said he was aware of the report, adding it is agency policy not to comment on documents until they have been made public.

IHS is a division of the Health and Human Services Department responsible for providing health services to federally recognized tribes of American Indians and Alaska Natives.

The property confirmed as lost or pilfered included brand-new medical equipment, laptop computers and a telephone switch from an Albuquerque, N.M., office worth more than $25,000, GAO found. A $961 machine used to evaluate hearing loss was "put out for trash" at an Oklahoma facility. The device never had been used. And, in the Nashville, Tenn., region, a trailer was swiped from a parking lot where the security gates were broken. Items missing but not yet listed as lost included a $170,000 ultrasound unit and a $14,000 John Deere tractor.

The watchdog again blamed a "weak tone at the top" from the agency's senior leadership for the waste and mismanagement. "Aside from issuing a memorandum from the IHS director that restated and refined existing policies, IHS has taken little action to ensure that employees are aware of and complying with property policies," the draft report stated.

The findings were based on a full physical inventory at IHS headquarters in Rockville, Md., and a probability sample of information technology equipment at six field locations. Spokesman Chuck Young confirmed that GAO is working on the report, but said investigators were in the process of getting comments from the IHS and were not prepared to release final findings.

GAO issued 10 recommendations in the 2008 report for stemming the long-running problem, including conducting more thorough investigations of missing equipment, enforcing the use of a property management database and using receipts to track equipment. But the draft report indicated that most of those recommendations have yet to be fully implemented.

One of the best ways to enforce policies, the draft report said, is to hold individuals responsible. But, in the past 16 months only one employee was found to be financially liable for missing property -- and even then the government has yet to be reimbursed, according to the report.

One employee told investigators that she could not remember what happened to her laptop, but the agency wrote the equipment off on its books in September 2008 rather than holding the official responsible. An Oklahoma employee who had been given a laptop to work from home failed to return the equipment when she left the agency, but IHS did not attempt to track down the equipment, GAO found.

The report also unveiled blatant examples of waste. One employee was issued a PDA, but told investigators he had not used it in two years. Another was assigned three laptops, but used only one of them.

A spokesman for Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, said he had yet to see the draft report but was interested in reviewing it. "He has indicated this is a problem that very much concerns him and that he wants corrected," spokesman Barry Piatt said.

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