The ousting of Christi A. Grimm comes amid a series of OIG removals, developments that are concerning lawmakers and editorial boards alike.
“The first messenger that gave notice of Lucullus’s coming was so far from pleasing Tigranes, that he had his head cut off for his pains; and no man daring to bring further information, without any intelligence at all, Tigranes sat while war was already blazing around him, giving ear only to those who flattered him.” –Plutarch, Lives
A Greek philosopher’s words published more than 1,800 years ago, among the very first literary references that coalesced into the more contemporary “don’t shoot the messenger,” seem to fit seamlessly into the context of contemporary American politics.
After business hours last Friday evening, the White House reportedly issued a nomination to replace U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Principal Deputy Inspector General Christi A. Grimm, the move coming a little less than a month after her office issued a scathing 41-page report outlining daunting logistical struggles being faced by hospitals nationwide amid the continuing COVID-19 viral pandemic.
The move marked the Trump administration’s third such dismissal of a federal watchdog in two months, following those of Inspector General of the Intelligence Community Michael Atkinson and acting U.S. Department of Defense Inspector General Glenn A. Fine – who was ousted from his role as chairman of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, the body formed to oversee a $2 trillion congressional pandemic relief funding package, after a week on the job.
Reaction to Grimm’s dismissal was swift and vocal. U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, the ranking Democrat on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, said that Trump’s nominee to replace her, Boston-based Assistant United States Attorney Jason Weida, wouldn’t be confirmed without assurances that he would be able to work free of interference from the Executive Branch.
“After attacking (Grimm) on Twitter, the President is now moving to replace the respected independent government watchdog leading investigations into why we were so unprepared and slow to respond to this virus, which has left families nationwide mourning tens of thousands of lives and struggling to make rent or put food on the table,” Murray said in a statement. “The President cannot be above oversight, no matter how he denies, attacks, and fights against it. His nominee must not get through the Senate without ironclad commitments to continue, without any political interference, the investigations that are currently underway. Anyone who demands less will be complicit in the President’s clear pattern of retaliation against those who tell the truth.”
NPR reported that HHS did not offer comment on Grimm’s future role within the agency, but instead said in a statement that the agency had been preparing “to assist a new Inspector General appointee over a year ago, when the previous presidentially appointed and Senate-confirmed Inspector General first announced his intention to retire from government service. We will continue to work conscientiously to support a smooth leadership transition.”
The statement appears to reference former HHS Inspector General Dan Levinson, a George W. Bush appointee who retired last year. In fact, Levinson, a frequent guest on Monitor Mondays Internet radio broadcast, was among the first to come to Grimm’s defense when criticism of her report arose nearly a month ago, labeling her “a highly respected career senior executive” and adding that “nothing in her longstanding career of public service would suggest otherwise.”
Grimm’s report, titled Hospital Experiences Responding to the COVID-19 Pandemic, was based on surveys of hospital administrators from 323 hospitals across 46 states who were posed three open-ended questions from March 23-27, centering on a) the most difficult challenges experienced thus far in responding to COVID-19; b) what strategies hospitals are using to address or mitigate those challenges; and c) how government could best support hospitals responding to COVID-19.
Those surveyed didn’t hold back. One hospital administrator said that nationwide, “millions (of tests) are needed, and we only have hundreds.” Another said that waits of a week and longer for test results contrasted unfavorably with the fact that “24 hours would typically be considered a long turnaround” for testing for other viruses. Among hospital administrators that had received supplies from the national stockpile, one said that 500 delivered masks were designed for children and did not fit adults; another found a supply of masks unusable because their elastic bands had dry-rotted; still another received PPE with an expiration date of 2010.
Days after the report’s release, Trump teed off on Grimm during a contentious press conference and on Twitter, pointing out that she “spent eight years with the Obama administration” while omitting mention of her 21 years of federal service under four presidential administrations. The President also labeled Grimm’s survey summary a “fake dossier.”
Pushback on those remarks emerged swiftly. Reuters reported that an HHS OIG spokesperson issued a statement indicating that the office “approached this survey with the same integrity and quality standards as we have in previous work.” American Hospital Association (AHA) President and CEO Rick Pollack also released a statement strongly defending the report, and pleading that government and healthcare entities learn from it.
“This important and timely report by the HHS Office of the Inspector General accurately captures the crisis that hospitals and health systems, physicians, and nurses on the front lines face of not having enough personal protective equipment (PPE), medical supplies, and equipment in their fight against COVID-19,” Pollack’s statement read. “The AHA continues to urge that all possible levers be used by both the government and the private sector to ensure front-line heroic providers battling against COVID-19 have what they need for protection and to provide care for their patients and communities – countless lives are depending on it.”
The report is available in its entirety online here: https://oig.hhs.gov/oei/reports/oei-06-20-00300.pdf
The New York Times Editorial Board weighed in on the ousting of Grimm and her two counterparts on Monday, noting that even three Republican senators have jointly expressed concern and requested further explanation – an ask that has gone unanswered.
“President Trump can’t handle the truth – at least, not when it makes his administration look bad,” the Times column read. “With (Grimm’s departure) the latest in a series of direct attacks on statutory oversight of his administration, it’s clear that the president remains committed to withholding the truth from the American people as well.”
As of Wednesday, the global COVID-19 pandemic had reportedly infected nearly 3.7 million people around the world, including approximately 1.2 million Americans, more than 70,000 of whom have died.