GAO blasts HHS over failed effort to build a network to track public health threats

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Missed deadlines and mismanagement have plagued HHS's efforts to build a public health network.

In 2006, Congress passed legislation outlining specific mandates for the Department of Health and Human Services to lead an effort to build an electronic network that could facilitate information sharing about public health threats.

More than a decade later, HHS isn’t any closer to making that network a reality.

That’s according to a scathing report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that indicates HHS has made “limited progress” toward building a public health situational awareness network initially mandated in the Pandemic and All Hazards Preparedness Act in 2006. The network was designed to allow public health officials to access real-time information about emerging threats.

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A 2013 reauthorization of the law doubled down on those requirements, setting new deadlines and asking federal officials to outline specific activities for incorporating data into the new network.

HHS has missed several deadlines since then, including a strategy and implementation plan which was submitted in September 2015, nearly seven years after the initial deadline and two years after the deadline outlined in the reauthorization act. The network itself was supposed to be completed by March 2015.

The plan that was submitted failed to address all activities like defining data elements and standards, according to the GAO.

“Until the department addresses all required activities, it will lack an effective tool for ensuring that public health situational awareness network capabilities have been established in accordance with all of the requirements defined by the law,” the report stated.

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Furthermore, auditors said HHS has failed to define measurable steps for completing the project or assign project responsibilities. In fact, the agency failed to follow IT management guidance developed by its chief information officer to designate a project lead and identify timelines, schedules and estimated resources and costs.

Ultimately the GAO recommended that HHS assign an integrated project team to the project and develop a project management plan that includes measurable steps for compilation outlined within its own guidance. HHS provided no response to the report’s findings.