Millions of dollars in equipment purchased by the Indian Health Service, including all-terrain vehicles and tractors, laptop computers and digital cameras, has been lost or stolen because of mismanagement, according to a report released yesterday by the Government Accountability Office.
Investigators said a whistle-blower, identified only as a "cognizant property official," called a government hotline a year ago, alleging widespread discrepancies in the agency's inventory. After auditing property records, investigators said they identified about 5,000 missing or stolen items at the agency's headquarters and 12 regional offices. The items are valued at roughly $15.8 million.
Based in Rockville, the Indian Health Service provides medical services to about 1.9 million people affiliated with federally recognized tribes of American Indians and Alaska natives. It operates under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Health Service officials objected to many of the findings, saying that most of the items were only temporarily misplaced and that some discarded equipment was outdated.
But investigators pointed to a number of "egregious" errors, including $700,000 worth of IT equipment damaged by "bat dung" in a storage room; a yard sale by government workers in Schurz, Nev., that resulted in 17 computers being given away for free; the theft of a desktop computer from a New Mexico hospital that contained a database with personal details about 849 uranium miners; and the creation of fake purchasing documents to purposely mislead auditors.
Jacqueline L. Pata, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, a nonpartisan group that monitors federal Indian policies, said the loss of equipment in tribal lands only further exacerbates existing shortages, citing missing "jaws of life" equipment, which is used to help pull people from accidents.
"Car accidents are a leading killer in tribal country," she said. "I was a little shocked at how extensive some of the property loss was."
Democratic congressional leaders who received the report yesterday quickly pounced on the findings.
"It's disgusting what's happening at the Indian Health Service," said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. "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."