(Adds HHS response in paragraphs 7-9.)
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Republican lawmakers want answers from the Biden administration on how the Department of Health and Human Services is awarding contracts and redirecting money for the care of unaccompanied migrant children.
Rep. James Comer (Ky.), the top Republican on the House Oversight and Reform Committee, joined with colleagues Thursday in a pair of letters demanding HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra explain his department’s management of record numbers of unaccompanied minors crossing the border.
The Biden administration is facing intense scrutiny of its management of U.S.-Mexico border crossings and its care of unaccompanied children at Fort Bliss, Texas and other facilities where poor conditions have been reported.
The oversight panel received whistleblower reports suggesting the HHS used no-bid contracts worth billions of dollars to hire companies lacking child care experience at emergency intake sites where kids are taken after U.S. border authorities encounter them.
“If these reports are true, this is unacceptable,” Comer and other lawmakers told Becerra. “Not only is this a gross mismanagement of taxpayer dollars, but it is inhumane treatment of children.”
The Republicans’ letter didn’t identify the contractors working with HHS, but a letter from the nonprofit Government Accountability Project, which represents federal whistleblowers, identifies Chenega Corp. and Rapid Deployment Inc. as HHS contractors that were hired without a bidding process.
A spokesperson for HHS defended the agency, saying it prioritizes the care and well-being of minors in its custody.
“We act quickly to address any concerns and have proactively closed sites that didn’t meet our standards,” spokesman Jorge Silva said in an email Thursday. “It remains our policy to swiftly report any alleged instances of wrongdoing to the appropriate authorities. Any potential incident previously reported would have led to an investigation and disciplinary action.”
Children at the Fort Bliss site meet with case managers weekly and work with mental health and behavioral counselors, he added.
HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement is tasked with caring for unaccompanied minors and connecting them with family members or potential sponsors in the U.S. It has faced broad scrutiny for the conditions of shelters and apparent inadequacies in the vetting process and follow-up services for children released to sponsors. More than 13,000 children were in HHS custody as of Wednesday.
In a second letter Thursday, committee Republicans raised concerns about media reports that the HHS is redirecting $589 million to care for unaccompanied children from other initiatives, including vaccine planning and distribution by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Similar transfers were reported earlier this year.
“We are concerned that these budget transfers are negatively impacting other mission-critical functions of HHS and the overall effort to combat the COVID-19 pandemic or respond to a future health crisis,” they wrote.
The White House has struggled for months to deal with record encounters with migrants at the border. The administration in January exempted unaccompanied children from Title 42, a public health authority allowing the Department of Homeland Security to immediately expel border crossers during the pandemic.
U.S. authorities reported more than 90,000 encounters with unaccompanied children in the first nine months of fiscal 2021, already exceeding the fiscal 2019 record of 76,000. The number of unaccompanied children decreased slightly from July to August, according to data released this week by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
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