Millions in equipment missing from Indian Health Service

A 2007 whistleblower tip opened investigations into the agency charged with providing health services to American Indians

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The numbers and details are staggering: Over the course of four fiscal years, at least 5,000 pieces of property, including computers, all-terrain vehicles, and digital cameras worth about $15.8 million, were lost or stolen from the Indian Health Service (IHS), a division of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Following a whistleblower’s tip in June 2007, Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigators began looking into the IHS, which is meant to provide personal and public health services to American Indians. They found a division plagued by a “weak internal control environment,” which demanded little accountability for property and held little regard for protecting personal data.

Some of the electronics that went missing were used to store personal information. For instance, a computer containing a database of uranium miners’ names, along with their Social Security numbers and medical histories, was carried out of an IHS hospital in New Mexico. Though IHS attempted to contact the miners, the agency didn’t issue a press release. And throughout the course of the investigation, “IHS made a concerted effort to obstruct our work,” GAO investigators reported, including lying to investigators claiming that IHS had recovered about 800 of the items reported missing. In addition to the waste of taxpayer money, the loss and theft of property denied the recipients access to critical items, like Jaws of Life equipment that can save lives after automobile and other accidents, Jacqueline L. Pata, the executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, told The Washington Post. An IHS spokesman refused to comment beyond reactions the agency provided to the GAO, which are documented in the report.

Follow-up:
The GAO released its report documenting rampant IHS mismanagement in July 2008. The GAO made 10 recommendations to IHS, including investigating “circumstances surrounding missing or stolen property, instead of writing off losses without holding anyone accountable.” HHS disagreed with the recommendation to track all sensitive equipment that went missing, even if it falls under a certain value threshold or contained sensitive information.

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