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April 23, 2024 1:34 pm

Local News

Ventilators Missing, Health Department Audit Reports; Auditors Get New Pandemic Relief Records

Credit: iStock

by Erik Gunn, Wisconsin Examiner

The state health department didn’t adequately track ventilators that it provided on loan to hospitals during the first 16 months of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Legislature’s auditors said in a report this week.

In a separate pandemic-related audit, Republican lawmakers accused the Department of Administration Thursday of holding back relevant documents last year from auditors examining how that agency managed the state’s distribution of federal pandemic relief money.

The Legislative Audit Bureau report examining the pandemic relief spending by the  Department of Health Services (DHS) found that six of the 1,542 ventilators that the department purchased and lent to hospitals were unaccounted for as of January 2023.

The report also concluded that DHS didn’t collect adequate documentation from at least 10 long-term care and emergency medical services providers that received pandemic relief grants. In addition, the audit bureau faulted the department for not following through on an internal audit  of how the department spent some of its pandemic relief funds.

The report was released Wednesday. In a response, DHS Secretary-designee Kirsten Johnson said the department agreed with auditors’ recommendations on tightening procedures at the department. She also defended the agency’s handling of the pandemic related matters in the health emergency.

On Thursday, the GOP co-chairs of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee announced they were turning over to the audit bureau newly released records from the Department of Administration and criticized the department for not having previously produced them for a 2022 review of how that department handled pandemic relief programs. 

The department’s secretary denied willfully concealing records and said the earlier response was based on the specific request the auditors had made.

The audit bureau said in a December 2022 report that its investigators received insufficient information on how the administration of Gov. Tony Evers decided to distribute the $5.7 billion that Wisconsin received from the federal government in three pandemic relief measures enacted in 2020 and 2021. The auditors called on officials to provide better documentation of how those decisions were made. 

Focusing on nine of the state’s pandemic relief programs distributing $412.6 million, the December report said the department did not provide agendas and minutes of meetings at which allocation decisions were discussed and other internal documents, despite the auditors’ request for those documents. 

At the time, the department’s secretary-designee, Kathy Blumenfeld, said that the department furnished memos and other documents that discussed “the policy underpinnings and needs for programs and investments the Governor chose to fund.”

Thursday, however, the audit committee co-chairs, Sen. Eric Wimberger (R-Green Bay) and Rep. Robert Wittke (R-Racine), stated that an open records request from the office of Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostberg) “asking for the same information” that the auditors had made had resulted in “nearly 300 pages of documents” from the department. They stated the newly disclosed documents were forwarded to the audit bureau for additional investigation. 

“I’m frustrated by the lack of response to very specific questions about how the DOA made supplemental funding decisions and who was involved,” Wittke said in the joint statement.

In a letter to Wimberger and Wittke along with the documents, Blumenfeld wrote that LeMahieu’s request “was broader and more comprehensive in scope than the Legislative Audit Bureau’s request for records and information” for the December 2022 report. The LeMahieu request “sought specific records for the nine programs reviewed” in the audit bureau report, “including emails.”

The department “did not interpret” the earlier audit bureau request “as requesting or requiring comprehensive email searches (an endeavor that takes significant time and resources to complete), as is required by the public records law,” Blumenfeld wrote. 

Her letter included an extensive list of the type of information and documents that she said had been included in the original response based on the audit bureau’s request.

This story was written by Erik Gunn, Deputy Editor at the Wisconsin Examiner, where this story first appeared.

Wisconsin Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Wisconsin Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Ruth Conniff for questions: info@wisconsinexaminer.com. Follow Wisconsin Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.