Earlier this month, the watchdog Office of the Inspector General (OIG) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced it will be forced to halt or scale back a significant number of the office’s critical investigations as the result of deep sequester-related budget cuts. With its area of responsibilities including overseeing the massive Medicare and Medicaid operations, the HHS OIG is the federal government’s largest inspector general unit. It is tasked specifically with investigating and rooting out waste that impacts the nation’s healthcare system as a whole.
Cutting back programs aimed at improving patient safety, creating transactional transparency and stamping out fraud that drives up costs for all healthcare consumers certainly does not seem like the right answer, ethically or financially. A report obtained by the Center for Public Integrity identified several initiatives that would be delayed or ended as the result of budget cuts:
An investigation to determine if nursing homes overuse controversial antipsychotic drugs in treating the elderly and which of these drugs are prescribed most often.
A search for crooked suppliers of costly durable medical equipment, such as wheelchairs and other medical devices used in the home, who manage to stay in business even after federal officials revoke their billing privileges.
A planned audit into computer security at state marketplaces-known as exchanges-that will sell individual health insurance policies under the Obama healthcare law. The OIG said “time pressures” to get the exchanges up and running by October 1 may increase risks that states will fail to shield private medical information from “hacker exploits, unauthorized data access and data theft or manipulation.”
Will the country really be better off if these investigations are cut short? The OIG reported $6.9 billion in recoveries from its fraud investigations in 2012, which equates to about an $8 return on every dollar invested.
So how much will these so-called budget “cuts” really wind up costing the government?
And it is not just money at risk. The OIG will also significantly reduce the number of investigations into poor quality care at hospitals, due to the expense of employing experts to review medical files, as well as the costs associated with their travel.
As I have seen in my work here every day, medical mistakes happen, and many of them could have been prevented with basic safety instruction or stricter regulations. Oversight provided by organizations such as the OIG is not merely for show–it seeks to protect the lives of all patients who cycle through our healthcare system. There is value in the breadth of its impact that cannot be overlooked.
Without full funding for these necessary OIG investigations, we risk paying more for a healthcare system that is not as safe. It really does not add up.