HHS OIG Directs University of Southern California to Return More Than $1 Million in Federal Funding
Auditors at HHS' Office of Inspector General have asked the University of Southern California to reimburse the federal government $1.08 million of a total of $1.27 million in funding because of problems in the university's management of a program to train HIV/AIDS peer treatment educators, the AP/Contra Costa Times reports (AP/Contra Costa Times, 8/1). In 2001, USC's program was shut down by federal regulators, who cited concerns about conflicts of interest, improper research procedures and misuse of funds; the audit released last week found additional evidence of such problems, according to the Los Angeles Times.
University officials said that USC followed overhaul recommendations and attempted to discontinue the program after one year but continued to run it at the request of federal partners. USC is challenging the amount that auditors have asked USC to reimburse.
"We've acknowledged that we made some mistakes. It's just a question of the amount that's due," Laura LaCorte, senior associate vice president of compliance at USC, said. USC officials said that some expenses were unauthorized but others were federally approved. USC plans to file an appeal to reduce the reimbursement amount. HHS OIG spokesperson Donald White said that no criminal investigation has been conducted and that the case will be reviewed by the Health Resources and Services Administration.
According to the Times, the audit cited USC's failure to resolve a conflict of interest related to the program's administration as one of its "major flaws." The alleged conflict of interest involved Phill Wilson, director of the Los Angeles-based not-for-profit Black AIDS Institute, who managed USC's program while also managing the African American AIDS Policy and Training Institute, a subcontractor of the program. Although Wilson resigned as executive director of AAPTI "apparently in response to conflict-of-interest concerns," he continued to manage it, the Times reports. Auditors concluded that the conflict of interest "opened the door for money to be diverted" to AAPTI for uses not related to USC's program, including $501,000 in expenses for soliciting sponsors for an AIDS march and conducting town hall meetings, according to the Times.
The audit also found that although Wilson was "not an experienced researcher," USC allowed him to "contact, recruit, enroll, test and gather information from the peer treatment educators," the Times reports. According to auditors, funding for the program was not authorized because organizers had participants sign consent forms that were not approved by USC's institutional research board. USC's IRB approves all human research studies at the university. The research continued because Wilson disagreed that participants were under the board's jurisdiction, the auditors found. The auditors report also cited inadequately documented expense reports for wages, travel consulting services, public relations and multimedia services (Silverstein, Los Angeles Times, 7/31).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.