Health Watchdog Defends Report on Medical Supply Shortages

Health and Human Services acting inspector general Christi Grimm testifies during a remote hearing of the House Oversight Committee on Tuesday. (House Television via AP)

WASHINGTON (CN) — The government watchdog who warned that hospitals battling Covid-19 were dangerously short on safety and testing equipment told a House panel Tuesday that politics surrounding the pandemic will not impact oversight of the Trump administration’s response.

“I personally and professionally cannot let the idea of providing unpopular information drive decision-making in the work that we do,” said Christi Grimm, principal deputy inspector general for the Department of Health and Human Services. 

Democrats have rolled out legislation to protect inspectors general from what they see as efforts by the White House to undermine independent oversight, putting forward a House bill that would require the president to provide good cause for their removal. 

House Oversight Committee Chair Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., said in a briefing held by videoconference Tuesday that President Donald Trump made baseless accusations that the April report by Grimm’s office was a “fake dossier” and that the 21-year career official was politically biased.

“It seems clear that he just wanted everyone to pretend that there were no challenges in our health care system,” Maloney said. “Of course we all know that was wrong.”

But Grimm avoided speaking directly to attacks by the president, instead telling lawmakers that independence allows watchdogs like herself to provide “objective judgment” without worrying about what agency officials want to hear. 

“We follow the facts wherever they lead,” she said. “We are impartial in what we do.”

Grimm has served in the inspector general’s office since President Bill Clinton’s administration, under President George W. Bush as well as President Barack Obama. She stepped up to head the office in an acting capacity after the previous inspector general resigned. 

Republicans claimed Tuesday’s briefing was an attempt to cut out minority concerns over reopening the economy and voiced frustration that Grimm was not testifying under oath in a full committee hearing from Capitol Hill.

“We must lead by example,” Representative Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, said. “States are opening up. Congress should get back to work just like states are.” 

Probing why the acting inspector general did not include information in the April report on the Trump administration working with the private sector to ramp up production of personal protective equipment, Republicans shared doubt over the report’s relevance. 

Grimm explained that the national survey — conducted at the end of March as Covid-19 cases spiked in major cities across the country — was meant to provide quick and reliable data on how hospitals were faring. 

“The report used was really designed to be a quick snapshot of what was happening on the ground in hospitals,” she said. 

Jordan, the top Republican on the committee, echoed Trump’s accusations that Grimm published a biased report with flawed methodology. He rejected that the president had ousted Grimm, who is set to be replaced by Jason Weida, an assistant U.S. attorney from Boston. 

“We are plowing ahead,” Grimm said when asked by Democrats if the nomination by Trump on May 1 to fill the post she currently occupies in an acting position chilled the independence that safeguards inspectors general.

The longtime civil servant repeatedly reminded Republicans that the survey was based on an 85% response rate to 400 calls to hospital administrators across five days in the final week of March, reporting the preparedness of 323 hospitals across 46 states to respond to the novel coronavirus outbreak. 

The “pulse report” her office put out was based on prior survey methodology used during the Ebola response, Grimm further explained.

“It is my understanding that this committee and others are looking for rapid response information with which to make decisions,” she said. “So we made choices in being able to provide quick turnaround information on the perspectives of hospitals.”

The acting inspector general stood firmly behind the report findings, while acknowledging that Health and Human Services officials have taken action in the last two months to improve supply chain distribution to hospitals and increase testing capacity. 

But Representative Gerry Connolly, D-Va., called out the Trump administration for failing to distribute supplies according to the severity of outbreaks in individual states. 

“Clearly lives were lost because of that failure and it seems to me that’s got to be a primary focus of your work so that we don’t repeat that,” Connolly said. 

Grimm, in response to Democrats’ concerns, recognized that testing shortages resulted in “downstream effects.” 

Explaining that hospitals “had to treat patients as though they were presumptive positive,” Grimm said the lack of testing supplies “impacted bed capacity and staff and additional access to masks and gowns and other protective equipment.” 

The acting inspector general also reminded the committee of particular concern over the state of preparedness at rural hospitals, quoting one hospital administrator who said: “There is no mothership to save us.” 

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