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GAO: Indian health agency lost millions in goods

WASHINGTON -- The Indian Health Service has lost at least $15.8 million worth of equipment and later falsified documents to cover up some of those losses, according to congressional investigators.

WASHINGTON -- The Indian Health Service has lost at least $15.8 million worth of equipment and later falsified documents to cover up some of those losses, according to congressional investigators.

The 5,000 pieces of lost or stolen equipment included a computer that contained more than 800 Social Security numbers and sensitive health information. Also missing are trucks, tractors, all-terrain vehicles and about a third of information technology items -- including computers, video projectors and digital cameras -- from the agency's headquarters in Rockville, Md.

The Government Accountability Office estimated losses between the 2004 and 2007 budget years in a report released Monday. Investigators blamed mismanagement at the top of the embattled agency, which often runs out of money to provide adequate health care to the American Indians it serves.

"IHS management has failed to establish a strong 'tone at the top,' allowing property management problems to continue for more than a decade with little or no improvement or accountability for lost and stolen property and compromise of sensitive personal data," investigators wrote.

Tighter regulations

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In an official response to the report, Health and Human Services officials agreed with many of the investigators' recommendations to tighten property oversight and regulations. But the officials also disagreed with some of the allegations, saying there were inaccuracies in the investigators' descriptions of some cases.

The department added that the study failed to appreciate that IHS has a unique property management system compared to other agencies because of the collaboration with Indian tribes.

The GAO said the agency, which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services, "made a concerted effort" to obstruct the investigators' work, including misrepresentations of data and fabricated documents.

In one case, a person identified in the report as the IHS director responsible for property claimed the agency was able to find about 800 items thought to be missing. Investigators later found this wasn't true. In another case, a property specialist acknowledged he fabricated documents saying hundreds of items were not missing and were properly disposed of.

Included in the missing items is a desktop computer that was stolen in April 2007 from an IHS hospital in New Mexico. The computer contained a database of names of 849 uranium miners, including their Social Security numbers and medical history.

North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan, chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, said his panel has scheduled a hearing on the issue next week.

"It's disgusting what's happening at the Indian Health Service," Dorgan said. "We can't continue to allow this. We have people dying because they can't get health care, and then we get a report like this."

The report also slaps the agency for wasteful spending. According to the GAO, there are three computers for every one employee at IHS headquarters. The investigation also found that computers and other technology equipment were often assigned to vacant offices.

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Proper safeguards

The agency has not properly implemented proper safeguards to protect their equipment, investigators said. As an example, the report noted that $700,000 in equipment was disposed of because it was "infested with bat dung."

The report was requested by Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.V., chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, after a whistleblower -- identified in the report as a "cognizant property official" -- called the GAO's fraud hotline.

That official alleged that IHS headquarters could not locate almost 2,000 pieces of equipment worth more than $1.8 million, including computers and other potentially sensitive information. The official also said IHS employees were writing off millions of dollars of equipment without holding anyone financially liable.

Investigators identified the lost and stolen property by reviewing agency documents and by conducting their own surveys at individual offices. GAO said the numbers of missing items and their total value is probably much higher, since the investigators only looked at a sampling of locations and the agency does not consistently document missing items.

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