DHS faulted for expired, questionable pandemic response supplies at Ebola hearing

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The chief Homeland Security watchdog ripped the department at a hearing on Friday for not "thinking through" its purchase of millions of dollars' worth of pandemic response supplies, saying much of the protective gear and drugs are expired or will be soon.

Inspector General John Roth testified at a House oversight hearing on Ebola, a health crisis that has sharpened focus on the government's preparedness for an outbreak -- even though officials maintain the likelihood of an Ebola outbreak remains low. Roth, ahead of the hearing, released an August audit that found the department has "no assurance" it has enough protective equipment and antiviral medication to respond to a pandemic.

The findings prompted criticism from lawmakers on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

"We spent millions of dollars for a pandemic ... We don't know the inventory, we don't know who's got it, and we don't know who's gonna get it," Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., said.

Roth responded: "You are correct."

Roth said the department spent $9.5 million starting in 2006 on pandemic protective equipment, as well as nearly $7 million on antiviral drugs for emergency workers. However, his opening statement and audit faulted the department for not "adequately" conducting an assessment of what they needed.

The result, he said, is the department cannot be sure it has enough, and in some cases it might have far too much. For instance, he said the department has 16 million surgical masks, but could not demonstrate the need for that many.

He specifically cited the department for having a glut of supplies that is or will soon be expired. He said much of their material has a "finite shelf life" -- including thousands of bottles of hand sanitizer, some up to four years expired, and 200,000 respirators that are beyond their five-year usability guarantee.

The audit also found "most" of the antiviral medication is nearing the expiration date.

"As a result, DHS and components may not have sufficient [protective gear or medication] to provide to the workforce during a pandemic," the audit says.

DHS, in their official response to the audit, said the department agrees with the intent of all the inspector general's recommendations, but claimed the report "has not appropriately characterized a number of issues."

Among them, DHS disputed the finding that they had no assurance they have enough equipment and medication. DHS suggested the shelf life of their supplies is longer than the audit made it seem, and the IG was basing its conclusions only on manufacturer information as opposed to other research.

In a written statement on Friday, DHS spokesman S.Y. Lee also said the department is committed to employee safety, and is "satisfied" with the current DHS stocks to deal with any Ebola response.

"We are constantly seeking to improve our pandemic preparedness and are committed to protecting our employees in order to ensure the effectiveness of our mission," Lee said. Lee said the IG recommendations were not addressed specifically to the Ebola response, but said the department "had already previously identified many of the issues prior to the review, and have taken comprehensive actions to address them."

While Friday's hearing delved into the government's preparedness for a full-scale outbreak, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle continued to press witnesses over the measures currently being employed to prevent the handful of U.S. Ebola cases from spreading into a larger crisis.

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said the latest diagnosed case of Ebola, in New York City, is "particularly distressing."

Dr. Nicole Lurie, assistant HHS secretary for preparedness and response, stressed health officials are working "24/7" to contain the outbreak in West Africa and are basing changes in U.S. policies on "lessons learned from each emergency."

She said in prepared remarks that the likelihood of an outbreak in the U.S. is remote, and that "there is an epidemic of fear, but not of Ebola, in the United States." The remarks were written before a fourth Ebola case was diagnosed in the U.S. -- a doctor in New York City who had treated patients in Guinea. Lurie did not repeat the statements during her testimony.

Issa said it would be a "major mistake" to underestimate the virus.

"Recognize that what we don't know could kill us," he said.

Issa said the U.S. has the ability to contain the disease but there have been problems.

"We need to know why there have been breakdowns," Issa said. "I think we all know the system is not yet refined to where we can say it is working properly."

The New York case prompted renewed fears over Ebola and more questions from lawmakers.

Mica cited how the latest individual to test positive for Ebola made it through an airport despite the government's new standards for screening travelers coming in from Ebola-stricken countries.

"It's not working, "Mica said. "He was tested there, it's not working."

Republicans in particular have questioned the Obama administration's response to Ebola.

Republicans have called for a travel ban and quarantines of travelers arriving here from Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, the hot spots for the epidemic that has killed thousands in Africa. The Obama administration has resisted such steps even while increasing screening of travelers arriving here and ensuring that they are monitored for 21 days, the incubation period for the deadly disease.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.