Watchdog who found hospital shortages unfazed by Trump barbs

Matthew Daly
Associated Press

Washington – The author of a federal report that found U.S. hospitals faced severe shortages of coronavirus test supplies says she is not intimidated by criticism from President Donald Trump, even after he moved to replace her as chief watchdog of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Christi Grimm, who has served as acting inspector general since January, told a House panel that there was no “chilling effect” from Trump’s criticism of her last month and his subsequent move to replace her.

In this image from video, acting Health and Human Services acting inspector general Christi Grimm testifies during a remote hearing of the House Oversight Committee, Tuesday, May 26, 2020.

“We are plowing ahead” with 14 new reports and audits on the health department’s response to the virus, Grimm said during a videoconference briefing Tuesday with the House Oversight Committee.

Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier of California asked Grimm if she believes there was a “chilling effect” from Trump’s criticism: “If you say something or do something that is offensive to the president that you will be removed from office?”

Grimm said no, adding: “I personally and professionally cannot let the idea of providing unpopular information drive decision-making in the work that we do.’’

Congress can be assured that 14 pending reports and audits of health spending related to the virus outbreak will continue unfettered “to protect people, to protect funds, to protect infrastructure and to ensure effectiveness,’’ Grimm said. “We are operating as we did on May 1” when Trump nominated a new inspector general to replace Grimm.

Jason Weida, an assistant U.S. attorney in Boston, must be confirmed by the Senate before assuming the position. Grimm remains in charge of the office as principal deputy inspector general while Weida’s nomination is pending.

With coronavirus cases skyrocketing, the inspector general’s office reported April 6 that a shortage of tests and long waits for results were at the root of mounting problems faced by hospitals.

Trump called the report, based on a late March survey of 323 hospitals nationwide, “just wrong” and suggested that its conclusions were skewed by politics.

“Give me the name of the inspector general,” Trump told reporters. “Could politics be entered into that?” Trump later dismissed the report on Twitter as “Another Fake Dossier!”

Democratic Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York, who chairs the Oversight panel, said Tuesday that Grimm “should not have had to endure these senseless personal attacks just for doing her job.’’ Maloney thanked Grimm for “tolerating” Trump’s attacks “with dignity while she continues serving the American people.’’

Grimm, a career government manager who has served under four presidents, told lawmakers that as acting IG, she has long been aware that she can be replaced at any time and does not let that fact affect her work.

“I do think independence is the cornerstone of what any office of inspector general does,’’ Grimm said. “That allows us to be impartial in the work we do … letting the facts take us where they may.’’

Grimm called the report “a snapshot in time,’’ but said it offered “quick and reliable data from the ground” to document the nation’s response to the novel coronavirus, which has killed nearly 100,000 Americans.

Grimm also pushed back on a theory advanced by some critics that hospitals may have intentionally reported inaccurate COVID-19 data in an effort to win more federal money or equipment.

“I do not believe hospitals were being misleading in providing us with this information,” Grimm said. Investigators did not “independently go behind and verify” the hospitals’ claims, she added.

Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, the panel’s top Republican and a close Trump ally, lamented what he said was the report’s “flawed methodology” and noted that investigators did not ask hospitals to specify actions the Trump administration had taken to help them respond to the crisis.

Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., asked Grimm to investigate the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, saying the agency failed to develop coronavirus tests in a timely fashion, and then saw its early tests plagued by a series of problems and false results.

“Clearly lives were lost because of that failure,’’ Connolly said, adding that a report on the CDC should be “a primary focus” of the inspector general’s work.

Grimm said the office is reviewing CDC’s role in approving, producing and distributing test kits. Her office also is looking at the Food and Drug Administration’s role in approving the test, Grimm said.