Audit committee questions new DHS leader about agency’s handling of pandemic funds

Republican lawmakers grilled the secretary-designee of the state health department Tuesday about an audit that found fault with the agency’s handling of some of its pandemic relief funds in the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic — long before she took office this year.

The Legislative Audit Bureau report, issued in May, highlighted what the bureau’s analysts considered to be three shortcomings in how the state Department of Health Services (DHS) handled some of its pandemic funding.

“There are more federal funds that are coming. And so we really need to see this tighten up,” Rep. Robert Wittke (R-Racine), co-chair of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, told Kirsten Johnson, who took office in March as DHS secretary and has yet to be confirmed by the state Senate.

Johnson, in her opening remarks at Tuesday’s hearing, said the department “has either implemented or is in the process of implementing” recommendations included in the audit report. She also noted that $43 million that DHS had overpaid to the federal government’s Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has been recouped.

The report questioned the department’s payment of $518,700 to 10 agencies as part of a grant program for long-term health care and emergency medical services providers to make up for lost revenue and increased staffing and equipment costs from March 2020 through June 2022. DHS did not establish written policies for reviewing the grant applications and did not specify the documentation that applicants would need to support their requests under the program, the auditors found.

“Given the context of when this occurred, I think it’s unreasonable to expect that every piece of documentation was perfect,” Johnson said. Local health department leaders “know their relationships with hospital systems and providers,” she added, “and you want to support them” when they need help.

At the same time, Johnson added, “we are putting processes in place” based on the audit report’s recommendations for stronger documentation and systematic procedures.

The audit report also examined the DHS program for managing its supply of 1,542 ventilators acquired in the pandemic at a cost of $38.7 million. Auditors found that only 20% of the ventilators were deployed by March 2022 and concluded that the department didn’t adequately keep track of its inventory of the equipment or the maintenance of the machines. At the time the audit was underway in January 2023, six of the ventilators could not be located.

Sen. Eric Wimberger (R-Green Bay), the other audit committee co-chair, homed in on the mismatch between the supply of ventilators the state had acquired and the number that were ultimately used.

“The lack of ventilators [and] the lack of hospital beds … was the justification for probably the largest deprivation of civil rights in Wisconsin history,” Wimberger said, alluding to the late March to mid-May 2020 state order closing businesses and stores in an attempt to control the spread of the virus responsible for COVID-19.

Wimberger cited unidentified medical practitioners who he said were already cautioning against relying on ventilators to treat COVID-19 patients in the pandemic’s first year.

In response, Johnson — who at the time was health officer in Ozaukee County — said that “early in the pandemic we were doing the best we could with the information we had on hand. And certainly we learned over the course of time what was appropriate medical procedure.”

Sen. Dianne Hesselbein (D-Middleton), attending the meeting by telephone, noted later in the hearing that when the ventilators were first ordered in March 2020, the GOP leaders of the state Legislature, then-Sen. Scott Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, had written Gov. Tony Evers imploring the governor to “please do not wait any longer to buy ventilators … [and to] do it now.”

Two of the unaccounted-for ventilators have been recovered at a Milwaukee hospital, said DHS Deputy Secretary Deb Standridge, and DHS is still tracking down the other four.

The audit report also found fault with how DHS ran its inspector general’s office, which completed one audit of a portion of the department’s pandemic federal funds but had not started other proposed audits.

Johnson said that the inspector general’s office was also responsible for reviewing other DHS programs, not just the pandemic relief funding, and that in addition, many of the staff were reallocated to address a surging need for people to assist with COVID-19 testing, vaccinations when those became available and many other tasks.

Before the hearing on the DHS audit, the committee voted on party lines to commission the audit bureau to conduct two audits, which are to be completed next winter. One will look at the Capitol police force and the other the Department of Justice crime labs.

Crime lab delays became a campaign issue in the race for state attorney general in 2022. A recent Justice Department report found that while the crime labs are processing DNA evidence faster, toxicology report processing has fallen behind the pace of past years.

The audit committee’s four Democrats voted against both proposed audits and released a statement blaming the Republicans who hold the majority in the Legislature and on the budget committee for the crime labs’ shortcomings.

“For years, the state crime labs have been asked to do more with less as requests for staffing were ignored,” stated the Democrats — Hesselbein, Sen. Tim Carpenter (D-Milwaukee), and Reps. Francesca Hong (D-Madison) and Ryan Clancy (D-Milwaukee).

They observed that while Attorney General Josh Kaul had requested 16 additional crime lab positions in the 2023-25 budget, the Joint Finance Committee’s Republicans approved adding three.

“If this was truly a problem the Republicans cared about they would have solved it years ago,” the Democrats stated. “Instead they feign outrage and point fingers at everyone but themselves.”



originally published at https%3A%2F%2Fwisconsinexaminer.com%2F2023%2F08%2F23%2Faudit-committee-questions-new-dhs-leader-about-agencys-handling-of-pandemic-funds%2F by Erik Gunn

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