The state of Vermont overpaid 17 health care providers by a total of $7 million in federal COVID-19 relief money through a state grant program set up to offset pandemic-related revenue losses in the industry, according to a report from the Vermont state auditor.
The auditor’s office reviewed $92 million of the total of $143 million paid during the first three rounds of the Health Care Stabilization Grant Program that was administered by the Vermont Agency of Human Services. The report released Monday found that that more than half of the 39 awards should not have been made or were too high.
“The first year of the pandemic greatly disrupted Vermont’s health care system, and the Agency of Human Services acted quickly to deploy federal COVID money to allow health facilities to pay their bills. By moving so quickly, though, the application review process was not comprehensive,” said state Auditor Doug Hoffer in a written statement.
Jenney Samuelson, the acting secretary of the Vermont Agency of Human Services, said officials were reviewing the auditor’s report and had not yet identified any grants that failed to meet requirements. She noted the program was implemented quickly in order to be responsive to the needs of health care providers at a time when revenues were down significantly.
“It’s important to remember the context of when these payments were made,” Samuelson said Tuesday during the governor’s weekly press briefing. “It was when we didn’t have vaccines, we didn’t have treatments. People were scared and our providers were really the ones who were coming to the table.”
The overpayments were caused by a range of errors, the audit stated, including inconsistent data from applicants and failing to identify funding awarded from other COVID-19 financial assistance programs.
“Every dollar that was improperly awarded was not available for other urgent needs like meals programs or housing assistance,” Hoffer said.
Samuelson said that even before the auditor’s report, her agency had been reviewing the payments to health care providers and in each case where they have been reviewed, the providers were able to justify the costs and there is no evidence of any fraudulent behavior.
“They’re able to present and produce costs that are appropriate,” she said. “And we really do feel like this program overall has been a success in stabilizing our health care system.”
Since receiving a draft of the audit, the human services agency has improved its validation plan to review more applications more completely, the audit stated.
The auditor’s report also said the agency is putting in place a post-award review that will consider whether applications were filled out completely and whether required supporting documentation was provided and was consistent with the applications.
But the report said the review is still limited and doesn’t include verifying that applicants accurately reported that they received other pandemic-related financial assistance.
Associated Press writer Wilson Ring contributed to this report from Montpelier, Vt.
This story has been corrected to reflect that providers were overpaid by a total of $7 million, not $7,000.