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HHS OIG calls for independence in the face of Trump’s criticism

The Pentagon’s deputy inspector general, Glenn Fine, resigned Tuesday

President Donald Trump after meeting with Senate Republicans on May 19, 2020. He has removed or demoted five agency inspectors general in recent months.
President Donald Trump after meeting with Senate Republicans on May 19, 2020. He has removed or demoted five agency inspectors general in recent months. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

The acting inspector general for the Department of Health and Human Services, who faced criticism from President Donald Trump last month, emphasized during a congressional briefing Tuesday the importance of independent oversight from the nation’s watchdogs.

“I view and the community views independence and effectiveness of an IG as a key safeguard for the programs that we oversee,” Christi Grimm, the department’s principal deputy inspector general, told the House Oversight and Reform Committee. “It’s what allows us to bring our objective judgement to bear on problems without worrying about whether those that run the programs are hearing what they want to hear or what they want to see the programs be doing.

The briefings come as Democrats raise concerns about whether Trump is targeting inspectors general across the administration. A top official in the Pentagon’s Inspector General office, Glenn Fine, resigned Tuesday. Fine is one of five inspectors general to have been recently demoted or dismissed by Trump in highly unusual moves. 

[Trump’s pick for Pentagon watchdog prompts questions]

The HHS office has been without a permanent inspector general since last year, Grimm said. Trump said earlier this month he intended to nominate Jason Weida, an assistant U.S. attorney general in Boston, to the post.

Trump criticized Grimm last month after the office released a report surveying over 300 hospitals, in which many hospital officials said they did not feel prepared for an influx of patients during the coronavirus pandemic.

Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., asked whether pushback to inspectors general could have a “chilling effect” on their work.

“I personally and professionally cannot let the idea of providing unpopular information drive decision-making in the work that we do,” Grimm said.

Coronavirus-related investigations

HHS’ Office of Inspector General currently has 14 open investigations regarding COVID-19, Grimm said, focusing on issues such as testing and vaccine development.

Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, the panel’s ranking member, said the hospital preparedness report that was released in early April is outdated, since the administration has taken steps to increase the number of ventilators and the available protective gear since then. 

Jordan said the goal of social distancing was to ensure that the nation’s health care system wasn’t overwhelmed, and that doing so led some hospitals to lay off workers and is pushing some close to bankruptcy.

“Everything has changed and the stated goal for the entire shutdown was certainly met, I think to the detriment of so many hospitals,” he said.

Republicans on the panel criticized Democrats for not holding an in-person hearing.

Grimm also raised concerns about increased attempts at fraud during the pandemic, and said the office is working with law enforcement to address those efforts.

“We know from experience that fraud schemes proliferate during emergencies, as greedy perpetrators exploit fear and confusion to steal,” she said. “It is despicable and it is happening during this pandemic.”

Rep. Glenn Grothman, R-Wis., asked whether the agency is looking into various treatments, such as vitamin D or vitamin C or zinc. Grimm said the office isn’t looking at the effectiveness of treatments, but that officials have seen some fraud in that area.

“On that specific point of vitamin C, we actually have seen quite a bit of fraud in that area with purported cures using vitamin C and other schemes that are really meant to entice beneficiaries to give their Medicare number in order to steal their identity,” she said.

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