Christi Grimm says the president’s rebuke of a report from her office will not have a chilling effect on her work.
The acting Health and Human Services inspector general briefed lawmakers on Tuesday on her office’s plan to oversee the novel coronavirus response by HHS, one of the key agencies involved.
The House Oversight and Reform Committee hosted a video briefing with acting Health and Human Services Inspector General Christi Grimm, who has only been in her current role since January, but has worked for the office since 1999. Following the office’s report on April 6 that hospitals are facing “severe shortages of testing supplies” and “widespread shortages of [personal protective equipment],” President Trump attacked the findings and questioned Grimm's credibility during a briefing. He then announced on May 1 his intent to nominate Jason Weida, Boston-based assistant U.S. attorney, to be HHS watchdog, but Grimm has remained in her acting role.
“To date, we have 14 COVID-related reviews posted to our public work plan with dozens of additional topics in development,” Grimm told lawmakers. “It is our hope that this work will help inform decision makers, including the department and Congress as they respond to COVID and prepare for the future. We are mindful of the critical work and safety of frontline providers and department staff. It is not surprising that in the crucible of an emergency response, people trying to save lives and livelihoods accept greater risk and sometimes make mistakes or realize unintended negative effects. Through our reviews we seek to understand what worked well and what did not.”
Among the slated reviews are the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s production and distribution of coronavirus testing kits, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services oversight of nursing homes during the pandemic and the Food and Drug Administration's role in testing. Grimm was “unable to confirm or deny the existence” of a review based off of demoted HHS vaccine director Dr. Rick Bright’s whistleblower complaint, as IG office officials are still deliberating internally over potential reviews. Bright testified before a House committee on May 14 that he “was met with indifference” by HHS officials when he tried to raise concerns earlier this year about the threat of the coronavirus and the federal government’s lack of preparations.
Grimm also previewed her office’s strategic plan for coronavirus oversight released later on Tuesday. The goals are to protect people (through public health guidance and fraud reviews), ensure proper spending of HHS’ $251 billion in funds for coronavirus response and recovery, shore up infrastructure (particularly information security and data systems) and maintain effective programs (such as those for telehealth and testing), she said. As the office conducts its reviews, audits and investigations, Grimm said, “as warranted, we are offering deadline extensions, delaying work where access to facilities is unsafe and adjusting our methods to avoid intruding on care.”
Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., pressed Grimm to coordinate more with the Homeland Security Department and Federal Emergency Management Agency to review how supplies from the strategic national stockpile were distributed. While HHS maintains the stockpile, FEMA distributes the material, which has been subject to scrutiny over who makes the decisions of where to send the supplies. Grimm acknowledged the “continuity of roles issue” and said the office will look more into the coordination problems.
When asked about a possible chilling effect, following the president’s recent attacks on the credibility of some IGs and high-profile firings, she said, “I personally and professionally cannot let the idea of providing unpopular information drive decision-making and the work that we do.”
Grimm said the HHS IG office is also working with other inspectors general; she is a member of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, established under the $2.2 trillion CARES Act to ensure relief funds are not misspent. The Homeland Security Department and its subcomponents and the Defense Department are working alongside HHS on the coronavirus response.
While the briefing was happening, the news broke that Glenn Fine, Pentagon deputy inspector general, resigned. Fine was previously serving as the acting IG and was slated to chair the accountability committee, but the president removed him from the acting role on April 6. The CARES Act stipulates that only current IGs can hold the position of chair.
“The role of inspectors general is a strength of our system of government,” Fine wrote in a statement. “They provide independent oversight to help improve government operations in a transparent way. After many years in the [Justice and Defense Department inspectors general offices], I believe the time has come for me to step down and allow others to perform this vital role. I wish the men and women of the [Defense IG] and the inspector general community continued success in these important responsibilities.”