Federal health agencies have not reported political interference for fear of reprisal: audit

According to a study published by the Government Accountability Office, employees at four Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) agencies said they did not report possible political interference in their work for fear of retaliation and for lack of framework to report it. (GAO).

For its study, the GAO used “semi-structured interviews and a confidential hotline” for employees of four HHS agencies: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA ), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR).

Employees of these agencies said they observed incidents they “perceive as political interference”, but did not report them for multiple reasons, including fear of reprisal, uncertainty about how to report such incidents and the belief that leaders already knew.

According to the GAO, none of the four agencies that were part of its review had procedures for addressing and reporting “potential political interference in scientific decision-making,” with officials instead telling staff that such issues would be addressed. internally on a case-by-case basis. – case by case.

This “performance audit” by GAO was conducted from October 2020 to April 2022 through the provisions of the CARES Act.

The GAO noted that there have been numerous allegations of political interference since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The agency highlighted a case in which a senior ASPR official claimed HHS retaliated against him after he revealed concerns about the public availability of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine in as coronavirus treatments.

Seven recommendations have been listed by the GAO to address this lack of ability to account for political interference in the work of agencies.

The recommendations called on the Secretary of HHS as well as the directors of the CDC, FDA, and NIH to “ensure that procedures for reporting and addressing potential political interference in scientific decision-making are developed and documented.”