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Watchdog Dings Coast Guard for Lax Travel Spending Oversight

The agency spent nearly $4.5 million over four years for medical care travel for certain service members – and some of it might have been unnecessary.

The Coast Guard’s lax oversight of a medical travel program for service members and their families could have wasted taxpayer money, a watchdog concluded.

The agency, which is housed in the Homeland Security Department, spent nearly $4.5 million between 2010 and 2014 on medical travel for Coast Guard members and their families stationed outside the contiguous United States. But 94 percent of the records the inspector general reviewed were missing key documentation, including doctors’ referrals and cost estimates, to prove the travel was valid and necessary.

“Without this information, approving officials may not have been able to evaluate whether the travel was necessary and cost effective,” the report said. “As a result, the Coast Guard may have approved requests for inappropriate health care travel, incurring unnecessary costs and lost productivity.”

The Coast Guard’s Travel to Obtain Health Care program provides active-duty members, reservists and their dependents with access to non-emergency, specialty medical care that is not available within 100 miles of the patient’s health care provider. Specialty health care would include orthopedics or oncology, for example.

But the program’s service center in Norfolk, Va., didn’t provide local offices in Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico with adequate guidance, or properly review their “inadequate” and “inconsistent” processes for approving such travel, according to the watchdog.

The DHS inspector general investigated the program because allegations surfaced that Coast Guard officials were approving unnecessary health care travel. For instance, the watchdog found that officials in Alaska approved government-funded medical travel for Coast Guard members to Vail, Colo.; Orlando, Fla.; Savannah, Ga.; and Scottsdale, Ariz.

“The documentation in the files did not support or demonstrate that care was not available locally or in a closer location such as Anchorage or Seattle, Wash., which could be more cost effective,” the report said.

The IG recommended that the service center administering the program spell out the documentation required for travel requests as well as the approval process, make sure taxpayer dollars are used most efficiently and regularly review health care records to ensure compliance. The Coast Guard has fully implemented that recommendation and is working on two others related to requiring the service center to review the field offices’ procedures for processing and approving medical travel and providing training on revised policies.