U.S. Indian Health Service Lost or Had Stolen $15.8 Million in Equipment
According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), investigators initially followed a hint from a whistleblower – a “cognizant property official” – who alerted the watchdog agency that the Indian Health Service (IHS) could not locate 1,180 pieces of accountable personal property valued at over $1.8 million dollars.
The Indian Health Service is an agency within the Department of Health and Human Services that provides federal health services to nearly 1.9 million American Indians and Alaska Natives.
After further investigation of seven Indian Health Service field locations in 2007 and 2008, the GAO found significantly more stolen property and wasteful spending than the whistleblower reported – losses to the tune of $15.8 million.
Between fiscal years 2004-2007, the Indian Health Service identified over 5,000 lost or stolen property items from the headquarters office and 12 regions, including a tractor, all-terrain vehicles, pick-up trucks and computers worth $6 million.
Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, called the report a “scathing indictment.”
Among the stolen items was a desktop computer from a hospital in New Mexico containing a database of uranium miners’ names, medical histories, and Social Security numbers. Although the IHS did not notify the public of the theft, it did attempt to notify the 849 miners whose personal information was compromised.
Of the 3,155 pieces of information technology (IT) equipment recorded for the headquarters of the Indian Health Service, 1,140 items – approximately 36 percent – were lost, stolen, or unaccounted for.
The GAO report found evidence of “wasteful spending of taxpayer funds” as well.
The IT equipment at IHS headquarters averaged 10 pieces per person, the GAO said, “each IHS employee is issued approximately 3 computers per person.”
During a hearing conducted by Dorgan’s committee, Robert McSwain, director of the Indian Health Service, defended the excess computer supplies by claiming that it buys in bulk to take advantage of significant price discounts.
McSwain argued that the ratio is closer to five items per employee, due to a discrepancy of the numbers the GAO used to calculate the ratio.
However, the GAO found that there were 25 brand new computers that were not issued to any employees and were “collecting dust in a store room,” the report claimed.
Furthermore, the GAO claimed that during its investigation, the Indian Health Service made a “concerted effort to obstruct” its investigation, including “misrepresenting” and “fabricating” hundreds of documents.
“No one in IHS conveyed to GAO that these documents were anything but newly generated documents … There was no intent to deceive or mislead the investigators,” McSwain countered, in testimony during the hearing.
McSwain also claimed that the Indian Health Service was transitioning from an outdated property management system to a newer, more efficient one while the government audit was being conducted.
“As such, not all concerns cited by GAO in their report are current or defensible,” McSwain said.
Still, the GAO blames the agency’s “weak internal control environment and its ineffective implementation of numerous property policies” for most of the lost or stolen property and waste. In some cases, the government agency doesn’t even know how many items might be missing or stolen.
“I would be furious if I were you,” Dorgan told McSwain during the hearing. “I’d be furious if I had to answer for this staggering incompetence.”