HHS Secretary Alex Azar received a scathing note from a GOP lawmaker on his first day on the job, and was given one week to respond to House oversight committee information requests on the Puerto Rico public health crisis, opioids, Medicare and more.
In a letter addressed to Azar on Monday, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chair Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) blasted HHS for its "posture of nonchalance" that he dates back to October 2016 in the department's responses to the committee's special inquiries.
Gowdy said the committee wanted to know how HHS was working with local governments in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands to deal with emergency preparedness and response.
But they got nothing. The staff from HHS' Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response "were unable to provide any update on the status of the response, whatsoever," Gowdy said.
The department has also ignored the House committee's attempt to look into HHS' management of the opioid crisis and used its preoccupation with hurricane response as an excuse, Gowdy said.
All in all, HHS' treatment of the committee requests "creates the appearance of the department's legislative affairs function has fallen into a state of permanent disrepair," Gowdy said.
Gowdy, who sent the letter without any co-signers, said the department even used the holiday season as an excuse for failing to send promised guidance. HHS officials missed two January deadlines they set for themselves to submit the documents. But, Gowdy wrote to Azar, "if you have read this far, it will come as no surprise the department has not done so."
Gowdy requested that Azar submit all the relevant documents on the impending inquiries including requests regarding the Medicare Part D program and cost-sharing reduction payments to the House Oversight Committee by Feb. 5.
The department's top job had been vacant since former HHS Secretary Dr. Tom Price's sudden resignation in late September. Deputy Secretary Eric Hargan has served in the post in the interim.
The department has seen considerable turnover in the past year. The latest dust-up came only last week when Brian Neale, an ally of Vice President Mike Pence, resigned suddenly early last week from his post of director of CMS' Center for Medicaid and CHIP Services.
Azar steps into the post with a looming list of priorities that lawmakers want to see managed, including the growing opioid crisis and skyrocketing drug costs.
The Senate confirmed Azar last week, largely along party lines with most Democrats blasting his record on raising drug prices as a former Big Pharma executive at Eli Lilly and Co.
In the often-intense questioning from Senate Democrats over the course of his confirmation hearings, Azar promised not only that he would respond promptly to congressional inquiries but also that he would work with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle on healthcare issues.