By Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa
Diligent oversight of the federal government is a priority of mine. It’s imperative that legislators root out waste, fraud, and abuse while holding bureaucrats responsible for the decisions they make when they think no one is watching.
At its core, oversight is about keeping faith with the taxpayers and working to give the American people confidence that their government plays by the rules and, if it doesn’t, it is held accountable. Health care is an issue that requires constant attention because it directly affects the life of every American.
One area of importance is federally funded medical research. Results of health-care-related studies are often indicators to the public on how to live healthy lives. When the processes of such studies are subject to impropriety, millions of taxpayer dollars can be needlessly wasted on biased results.
Earlier this year, one example of that impropriety came to my attention thanks to concerned Iowans who contacted me after seeing media reports describing a National Institutes of Health study on the long-term effects of daily alcohol consumption. The reports alleged that the study was in large part funded by alcohol companies, a clear conflict of interest.
In response, I asked the NIH about these allegations and for information about the solicitation of funding related to the study, who was involved in fundraising efforts, whether fundraising efforts violated federal law, and what was the agency’s plan to ensure integrity and independence in future scientific studies. The study was ultimately investigated and discontinued, potentially saving millions of taxpayer dollars. Questions still remain, however, on the study’s total cost to taxpayers and what disciplinary actions have been taken against employees who violated NIH policy.
Transparency is vital to a well-functioning government, yet too often there’s simply not enough of it in our federal agencies.
Another issue I continue to monitor involves clinical trials for new medications and procedures. Media reports in April detailed how a stem cell clinic operating in South Florida was listed on the federal website for clinical trials, ClinicalTrials.gov, despite it not having been approved by the federal government. Three women who underwent treatment at the facility, believing it was a government-backed clinic, were left permanently blind.
I contacted the Department of Health and Human Services, the Food and Drug Administration, and the NIH about how this unapproved clinic could be listed on the federally backed clinical trial website, the results of their investigations into the case, and if the clinic or any of its employees had been referred to the Justice Department for potential prosecution, among other questions.
Oversight of federal agencies requires persistence, and I continue to seek answers about the process used by the government to ensure that trials are properly overseen and not falsely advertised. Health care consumers deserve to know how their money is being spent and whether the procedures they’re receiving are safe.
The goal of oversight is to identify problems, such as the neglect of seniors, and when necessary enact legislative fixes. Reports from The Des Moines Register detailed a disturbing case of an elderly woman who seemingly died from neglect in a nursing home. This isn’t an isolated case. News of abuse of the elderly nationwide has surfaced over the past several years.
I contacted the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services for more information on why it failed to ensure that nursing home neglect cases are reported to law enforcement. There were more than 130 incidents of abuse throughout the country last year. Some went beyond physical abuse: Reports of nursing home employees in at least 18 facilities in the U.S. taking unauthorized photos of elderly residents for social media sites like Snapchat surfaced last year.
As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, I pressed social media companies to look into this problem and do more to stop it. In response, Snapchat developed better tools to report abuse. I sought answers from HHS, leading the agency’s inspector general to alert 50 State Medicaid fraud control units to be on high alert of the problem and investigate all allegations of abuse. Federal regulators then issued a detailed memo spelling out social media exploitation as a prohibited form of abuse, a step in the right direction.
Along with Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), I introduced the Elder Abuse Prevention and Prosecution Act. This law would expand data collection so we can learn more about the extent to which senior citizens are being exploited or abused. It also calls for the appointment of elder justice coordinators at federal agencies to better prevent and respond to these crimes. President Trump signed the legislation into law last year.
Oversight of the federal government isn’t easy. The bureaucracy does not shift into high gear overnight, and watchdogs are often faced with delays and barriers to the truth. But oversight is an essential and necessary function of Congress, and it’s a duty every legislator should pursue seriously, particularly on issues concerning the health and well-being of American citizens.