Officials Blame Short Staffing for Lapses in Audit of the Department of Public Health

A public audit released on Thursday identifies a series of problems at the Department of Public Health that state officials blame on short staffing — including lax oversight of contracts, failures to submit reports to lawmakers, and in some cases, even more issues with filling staff vacancies.

The State Auditors of Public Accounts report outlined shortcomings at the department between 2018 and 2019 – including a number of unresolved problems that had been identified in previous audits.

For many of the findings, the department agreed they had fallen short, but said a lack of staffing prevented them from completing required tasks like submitting 26 different reports to lawmakers over the two year period. 

Auditors found that 12 required reports were submitted late, and they could not find another five required reports at all – leaving the General Assembly with diminished oversight of the department, according to the audit report. 

The reports that apparently were not submitted included a report on set-aside procurement goals for small and minority-owned businesses, a report on emergency medical services, and a report on nurse staffing. The department said the finding was accurate, and admitted the process for keeping up with the litany of annual reports still needs improvement.

“The primary issue as to why reports are not filed in time is due to staffing responsibilities,” the department said in its response to the audit finding. “Some of the authors of the reports have been consumed with COVID response. Additionally, the Office of Government Relations does not have enough staff to consistently reach out to authors of reports and get a work product in a timely fashion.”

The department gave a similar explanation for a finding that several contracts were not complete or fully executed before their start dates, a situation Auditor John Geragosian said leaves both the state and the contractor at risk.

“If the contract isn’t signed, and all the terms and conditions haven’t been agreed to, and the contractor doesn’t perform, or finish on time, or submits the wrong materials, then you don’t really have a leg to stand on to do anything about it,” Geragosian said. “It’s something we find pretty regularly, and it’s not a good practice. It’s not good for either party.”

That finding had been repeated in the last eight audit reports of the department, dating back to 2002. In the most recent report, auditors found 10 of 14 contracts they reviewed related to the Women, Infants and Children program in 2019 were not fully executed before their effective dates – along with five of five contracts related to the Small Town Economic Assistance Program, and one of five related to the Drinking Water Fund.

“The Contracts and Grants Management Section is severely short staffed,” the department wrote in its response. “Due to being short-staffed, they are working with heavy contract assignments, without back-up relief. It is essential for [them] to receive additional support and staff.”

A lack of staff also reportedly led to a new finding by the auditors – that the department was not completing evaluations of all contractors within 60 days of the contractor completing their work, as required for all contracts of $50,000 or more.

The auditors found that those evaluations weren’t completed on time for 14 of the 83 contracts they reviewed, which totaled $11.39 million. Without completing those evaluations, the auditors said the department could renew contractors who underperformed or failed. The department said the shortcoming was the direct result of a staff shortage.

“[The Contracts and Grants Management Section] has a severe shortage of staff that are handling large volumes of contracts with large numbers that are priorities,” the department wrote. “In the larger picture, staff collaborate with program staff at the end of the contract period to submit the contractor evaluations, but these are not always completed within the 60 day window. As soon as [they fill] these vacancies, significant improvements will be made.”

While the audit report repeatedly acknowledges that the department is short-staffed, it also found instances where the department was not filling vacant positions that have been funded and approved – some of them for several months.

Of 45 positions that were vacant as of June 30, 2019, there were still 25 unfilled at the end of September 2019, according to the report. Those included accountants, administrative assistants, epidemiologists and a fire safety inspector, according to the Auditor’s office. 

The auditors said it was a lack of staffing in the human resources and affirmative action units contributed to the ongoing vacancies, and that they result in understaffed units being left with excessive workloads.

“[The department’s] top priority is to respond to vacancy gaps and recruitment needs,” the department wrote in its response. “Since October of 2020, the agency has processed 114 position actions, including new hires, rehires, promotions and transfers.”

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