Skip to main content

Here’s how San Francisco’s health department failed to track $500,000 in gift cards

A controller's audit found that the department failed to properly track and keep safe gift cards used for everything from groceries to restaurants.

A reflection on a window.
The signage for the San Francisco Department of Public Health is reflected in another building’s window. | Source: Camille Cohen/The Standard

A cockroach infestation, staff turnover and lost records are just some of the reasons why the San Francisco Department of Public Health has failed to track hundreds of thousands of dollars in gift cards it handed out over three years, according to a new audit.

The San Francisco Controller’s Office Thursday released an audit that looked into gift cards purchased to pay for everything from groceries and restaurants to clothing and drugstores. Each was worth no more than $50.

“Public health fiscal units don’t adequately monitor how the department’s programs handle gift cards, which increases the risk of cards being lost or misappropriated,” the audit said.  It went on to say that the findings show there is “little or no verifiable oversight of gift card handling.” 

In most of the 18 city programs using the cards, there were failures to track who got the cards. And in many cases, their distribution and logging were done by the same person. 

The majority of the gift cards handed out—roughly $300,000 worth—were given by HIV Health Services. Smaller amounts were handed out by programs providing everything from mental health services and immigrant health services to drug recovery. 

In all, the Department of Public Health bought $487,060 worth of cards from 2018 to 2021. Most were given as incentives, for example, by programs such as the Street Crisis Response Team or Hope SF Community Wellness Program, to ensure that patients make appointments and participate in educational programs.  

A man walking in front of a building.
Pedestrians pass the San Francisco Department of Public Health office at 101 Grove St. | Source: Camille Cohen/The Standard

The controller’s review found that only four programs were adequately monitoring gift cards worth about $70,000. 

This isn’t the first time the city has failed to track gift cards. Last year, another audit found that the Human Services Agencies failed to track $2.5 million worth of gift cards. 

Although the recent audit pointed out a number of especially problematic examples of managing and tracking gift cards, it did not specify which programs. 

One entity that tracked gift cards in a log no longer had its log because it had been thrown away after a cockroach infestation.

Another program’s manager bought cards with their own money and then sought reimbursement from the city, which is prohibited. This occurred despite the fact that the manager signed a gift card policy acknowledging that such practices are against the rules. 

Man stands and speaks
Department of Public Health Director Grant Colfax talks about the new affordable housing units at City Garden in San Francisco on April 14, 2023. | Source: Justin Katigbak for The Standard

Another program’s staff admitted that cards had gone missing after not being safety secured. 

And yet another program simply admitted it did not track the cards it gave out. 

Many of the programs said they had lost their accounting of gift cards due to turnover. Eleven of 18 programs had one person overseeing the distribution and logging of the gift cards, which is barred, as it has the potential for misappropriation. 

On Friday, the Department of Public Health issued a statement saying it “is committed to fiscal stewardship and ensuring taxpayer and public funds are appropriately expended to protect and promote the health of all in San Francisco.”

Moreover, in its response letter to the Controller’s Office, it agreed with many of the findings, but said by way of explanation that the failures to track gift cards were in part due to the pandemic and the resulting emergency. 

The department’s director, Grant Colfax, wrote in the response letter that he will have all programs review policies around gift card management and tracking. Colfax also wrote that he will begin biannual fiscal reviews of how cards are being tracked. He will also require that more than one person is in charge of distributing and tracking gift cards.

Jonah Owen Lamb can be reached at