Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State
As part of our commitment to the people of Afghanistan, the United States is providing more than $266 million in new humanitarian assistance, bringing total U.S. humanitarian aid for Afghanistan to nearly $3.9 billion since 2002.
This assistance from the American people will help our international humanitarian partners provide support to some of the estimated 18 million people in need in Afghanistan, including more than 4.8 million Afghans internally displaced. This year alone, more than 115,000 persons have been displaced by conflict inside Afghanistan, and nearly 500,000 have returned to Afghanistan in need of assistance. This funding will allow our partners to provide lifesaving protection, shelter, livelihoods opportunities, essential health care, emergency food aid, water, sanitation, and hygiene services to respond to the needs generated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, this assistance helps to address protection needs for the most vulnerable Afghans. This includes women and girls facing particular risks, including gender-based violence, as a result of the pandemic and decades of conflict.
We welcome the contributions of other donors toward this international response and urge others to generously support Afghanistan’s immediate humanitarian needs. Afghanistan’s neighbors have hosted one of the largest, most-protracted refugee populations in the world. We thank host countries for their ongoing commitment to the Afghan people and urge them to keep their borders open to Afghans seeking international protection and are working with our partners to assist host countries in their efforts.
For many years, the United States has prioritized support for Afghan returnees, refugees, and displaced persons. As the United States withdraws military forces from Afghanistan, our enduring commitment is clear. We remain engaged through our full diplomatic, economic, and assistance toolkit to support the peaceful, stable future the Afghan people want and deserve. We urge Afghan leaders and the Taliban to accelerate progress toward a negotiated political settlement and permanent and comprehensive ceasefire to bring an end to over forty years of conflict and create the conditions that will allow refugees to return to their homes safely.
- Federal Real Property: Additional Documentation of Decision Making Could Improve Transparency of New Disposal ProcessBy Sam NewsJanuary 29, 2021In 2016, the Federal Assets Sale and Transfer Act (FASTA) created the independent Public Buildings Reform Board (the Board) to support a new, three-round process for disposing of unneeded federal real property. The first of these rounds required the Board to identify and recommend at least five high-value disposal candidates with a total market value between $500 and $750 million. To identify these properties, the General Services Administration (GSA) collected and evaluated agency recommendations; a GSA-hired contractor analyzed real property data; and the Board held public hearings, visited properties, and met with federal officials. This process resulted in identifying 44 properties. The Board then took various steps to evaluate the 44 properties and recommended 12 final disposal candidates that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) approved in January 2020. (See figure.) However, the Board did not fully document the process used to evaluate these candidates. For example, the Board's rationales for why individual candidates were or were not recommended were vague or incomplete. Full documentation on the decision-making process would better position stakeholders, including members of Congress, to understand the Board's rationales, especially for decisions with financial implications. Process Used by Stakeholders for Identifying and Recommending High-Value Federal Real Property for Potential Disposal Candidates According to Board and selected federal agency officials, FASTA made it easier for agencies to pursue high-value property disposals due, in part, to exemptions from some requirements, such as having to first offer properties to federal, state, or local agencies. However, FASTA's effect on other long-standing challenges, including funding to prepare properties for disposal, is unclear. For example, FASTA created a dedicated funding source to implement Board recommendations including those related to covering disposal costs, such as relocating agency staff. However, officials expressed concern that access to these funds is not automatic and must go through the annual appropriations process, which rarely coincides with the timing of these projects. The administration proposed legislative language to make proceeds from the sale of assets in fiscal year 2021 available without additional actions by Congress. However, as of January 2021, legislation containing the proposed language had not been enacted. This report discusses elements Congress may wish to evaluate when determining whether to grant such budget-related flexibility. GAO designated federal real property management, including the disposal of properties, as a high-risk area in 2003. FASTA included a provision for GAO to review the recommendations and selection processes such as those used in the first round of identifying and recommending high-value properties as candidates for disposal. This report examines: (1) how stakeholders implemented FASTA to identify and evaluate high-value properties as potential disposal candidates and (2) stakeholder views on the extent to which FASTA helped agencies with the disposal of unneeded high-value properties and addressed long-standing challenges in disposing of federal properties. GAO reviewed FASTA and analyzed documents from the Board, OMB, GSA, and selected 14 federal agencies to examine the processes they used and the challenges they encountered under the FASTA process. Agencies were selected based on their recommendations of high-value properties and inclusion on the Board's final list, among other things. GAO also interviewed officials from the Board, OMB, GSA, and selected federal agencies. GAO is recommending that the Board fully document its process for recommending FASTA disposal candidates, including the rationales behind disposal decisions. The Board noted plans to develop more documentation of its future disposal decisions. For more information, contact David Trimble at (202) 512-2834 or email@example.com.[Read More…]
- Engineering Firm And Its Former Executive Indicted On Antitrust And Fraud ChargesBy Sam NewsOctober 23, 2020A federal grand jury in Raleigh, North Carolina returned an indictment charging Contech Engineered Solutions LLC and Brent Brewbaker, a former executive at the company, for participating in long-standing conspiracies to rig bids and defraud the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NC DOT), the Department of Justice announced.[Read More…]
- Owner of Oil Chem Inc. Sentenced for Clean Water Act ViolationBy Sam NewsMay 14, 2021The president and owner of Oil Chem Inc. was sentenced today to 12 months in prison for violating the Clean Water Act stemming from illegal discharges of landfill leachate — totaling more than 47 million gallons — into the city of Flint sanitary sewer system over an eight and a half year period.[Read More…]
- Defense Acquisitions: Resolving Development Risks in the Army’s Networked Communications Capabilities Is Key to Fielding Future ForceBy Sam NewsAugust 25, 2021The Army has embarked on a major transformation of its force. Central to this transformation is the Future Combat Systems (FCS), a $108 billion effort to provide warfighters with the vehicles, weapons, and communications needed to identify and respond to threats with speed, precision, and lethality. Establishing reliable, robust communications and networking capabilities is key to FCS's success. Each of the systems integral to the FCS communications network--the Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS), the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical (WIN-T), and the System of Systems Common Operating Environment (SOSCOE)--rely on significant advances in current technologies and must be fully integrated to realize FCS. Given the complexity and costs of this undertaking, GAO was asked to review each of these key development efforts to identify any risks that may jeopardize the successful fielding of FCS.Each of the programs for developing FCS's communications network is struggling to meet ambitious sets of user requirements and steep technical challenges within highly compressed schedules. As currently structured, the programs are at risk of not delivering intended capabilities for the first spiral of FCS, slated to start in fiscal year 2008. The JTRS Cluster 1 program--a program to develop radios for ground vehicles and helicopters--began development with an aggressive schedule, immature technologies, and a lack of clearly defined and stable requirements. As currently designed, the radio will only have a transmission range of only 3 kilometers--well short of the required 10 kilometers--and will not meet security requirements for operating in an open networked environment. The program's struggle to mature and integrate key technologies has contributed to significant cost and schedule growth. A recent review of the program concluded that the current program structure is not executable, and in April 2005, DOD directed the Army to stop work and notify the contractor that it was considering terminating the contract. Meeting requirements for JTRS Cluster 5 radios--miniaturized radios, including those that soldiers carry--is even more technically challenging given their smaller size, weight, and power needs. The smallest of these radios weighs only about 1 pound, compared with 84 pounds for Cluster 1 radios. Several programmatic changes and a contract award bid protest have further slowed program progress. The Army is considering options for restructuring the program to meet the needs of FCS and address the technical issues encountered in the Cluster 1 program. The Army does not expect to fully mature the technologies for WIN-T--communications equipment that supports an expanded area of battlefield operations and interfaces with JTRS radios--when production begins in March 2006. Moreover, the compressed schedule assumes nearly flawless execution and does not allow sufficient time for correcting problems. Significant interdependencies among the critical technologies further increase overall program risk. The program was directed to deliver networking and communications capabilities sooner to meet near-term warfighting needs and synchronize with the restructured FCS program. A plan for how to develop and field WIN-T capabilities sooner to address FCS needs remains undetermined. According to Army network system integration officials, SOSCOE--the operating software to integrate the communications network--may not reach the necessary technical maturity level required to meet program milestones. In addition, top-level FCS requirements are still evolving and have not been translated into more detailed specifications necessary for writing SOSCOE software.[Read More…]
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- VA Health Care: Preliminary Findings on the Department of Veterans Affairs Health Care Budget Formulation for Fiscal Years 2005 and 2006By Sam NewsAugust 25, 2021This report documents the information we provided to Congress in a briefing on February 2, 2006, in response to a request concerning the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) internal budget formulation process. This includes information that VA develops for its budget submission to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), but it does not include information on subsequent interactions that occur between VA and OMB. We will do additional work to incorporate information from OMB and complete our analysis in a report to be issued at a later date. Congress requested information on VA's budget formulation process because of its interest in ensuring that VA's budget forecasts are accurate and based on valid patient estimates. In response to the request for information on VA's internal budget formulation process, this report provides the following for fiscal years 2005 and 2006: (1) a description of VA's process for developing its budget submission to OMB for its medical programs, and the role of VA's actuarial model; (2) a description of the medical program activities cited by VA as needing additional funding, and how VA identified these activities; and (3) key factors in VA's budget formulation process that contributed to the requests for additional funding.VA's internal process for formulating the medical programs funding requests was informed by, but not driven by, projected demand. VA projected costs based on projected demand for medical care under current policy. Throughout the process, VA compared projected costs to its anticipated request level for the OMB submission and made adjustments to address the difference. VA officials stated that this was done in two ways: through cost-saving policy proposals, such as assessing an annual health care enrollment fee, and management efficiencies. After making adjustments to address the difference between projected costs and its anticipated request level, VA developed its budget submission for OMB. VA later cited a number of activities as needing additional funding based on programmatic priorities and an analysis of expenditure data. Among the activities that were cited for fiscal year 2005 was $273 million for veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan; $226 million for long-term care; and almost $400 million for increases in the number of patients, as well as increases in both utilization and intensity of care. For the fiscal year 2006 budget, VA cited $677 million to cover a 2 percent increase in the number of patients, $600 million to correct VA's estimate for long-term care costs, $400 million for an unexpected 1.2 percent increase in average cost per patient, and $300 million to replace funds VA planned to carry over from fiscal year 2005 to fiscal year 2006. VA officials said that they chose to highlight activities that were of high programmatic priority and could be supported by workload and expenditure data (e.g. veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan). They also reviewed spending and workload trends to determine whether spending trends were on target or whether adjustments were needed. An unrealistic assumption, errors in estimation, and insufficient data were key factors in VA's budget formulation process that contributed to the requests for additional funding. According to VA, an unrealistic assumption about the speed with which VA could implement a policy to reduce nursing home patient workload in VA-operated nursing homes for fiscal year 2005 led to a need for additional funds. VA officials told us that errors in estimating the effect of a nursing home policy to reduce workload in all three of its nursing home settings--VA-operated nursing homes, community nursing homes, and state veterans' nursing homes--accounted for a request for additional funding for fiscal year 2006. VA officials said that the error resulted from calculations being made in haste during the OMB appeal process. Finally, VA officials told us that insufficient data on certain activities contributed to the requests for additional funds for both years. For example, inadequate data on veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan resulted in an underestimate in the initial funding request.[Read More…]
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- Rebuilding Iraq: Status of Competition for Iraq Reconstruction ContractsBy Sam NewsSeptember 21, 2021Since 2003, Congress has appropriated more than $20 billion through the Iraq Relief and Reconstruction Fund (IRRF) to support Iraq rebuilding efforts. The majority of these efforts are being carried out through contracts awarded by the Departments of Defense (DOD) and State and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). When awarding IRRF-funded contracts for $5 million or more noncompetitively, agencies are required by statute to provide notification and justification to Congress. In June 2004, GAO found that agencies generally complied with laws and regulations governing competition to award new contracts, but did not always comply with competition requirements when issuing task orders under existing contracts. As mandated by Congress, this report (1) describes the extent of competition in Iraq reconstruction contracts awarded by DOD, USAID, and State since October 1, 2003, based on available data, and (2) assesses whether these agencies followed applicable documentation and congressional notification requirements regarding competition for 51 judgmentally selected Iraq reconstruction contract actions. In written comments, State and USAID concurred with the report findings. DOD provided a technical comment.While no single, comprehensive system currently tracks governmentwide Iraq reconstruction contract data, available data showed that from October 1, 2003, through March 31, 2006, DOD, USAID, and State collectively awarded the majority of Iraq reconstruction contracts competitively. Based on competition information we obtained on $10 billion of the total $11.6 billion in IRRF obligations by these agencies during the period of our review, we found that about $9.1 billion--or 91 percent--was for competitively awarded contracts. While our ability to obtain complete competition data for all DOD Iraq reconstruction contract actions was limited because not all DOD components consistently tracked or fully reported this information, we obtained information on approximately $7 billion, or 82 percent, of DOD's total Iraq reconstruction contract obligations, and of this, we found that competition occurred for nearly all of the obligations. Additionally, based on complete data for the period of our review we found that USAID competitively awarded contract actions for 99 percent of its obligations, while State awarded contract actions competitively for only 10 percent of its obligations. GAO reviewed the files for 51 contract actions totaling $1.55 billion--22 of which were awarded noncompetitively and 29 of which were awarded competitively--almost all of which contained proper documentation. One contract file--for a noncompetitively awarded task order issued by State--did not contain justifications or other required documentation. DOD was also unable to provide documentation for 4 of the competitively awarded contract actions. Of the 22 noncompeted contract actions in GAO's review, State should have notified Congress of 2 actions awarded using other than full and open competition in accordance with notification requirements but did not. State officials told GAO that they have taken steps to address the problem. GAO did not identify any DOD or USAID contract actions within the sample that required notification.[Read More…]
- Justice Department Reaches Major Olmstead Settlement Agreement with North DakotaBy Sam NewsDecember 14, 2020The Justice Department today announced a settlement agreement with the State of North Dakota under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The agreement resolves complaints alleging that North Dakota unnecessarily institutionalizes individuals with disabilities in nursing facilities, instead of providing them the services they need to live in the community.[Read More…]
- Justice Department Announces Funding Opportunities to Support Public Safety in Tribal CommunitiesBy Sam NewsDecember 14, 2021The U.S. Department of Justice today announced the opening of the FY 2022 Coordinated Tribal Assistance Solicitation period.[Read More…]
- Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke Delivers Remarks at the Democracy Fund’s Language Access for Voters SummitBy Sam NewsDecember 13, 2021Thank you so much for that very kind introduction, and many thanks to the Democracy Fund for inviting me to participate in this event and for convening this virtual summit. It is a pleasure and an honor to be here today.[Read More…]
- Minnesota Man Charged with Providing Material Support to ISISBy Sam NewsSeptember 16, 2020Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers and U.S. Attorney Erica H. MacDonald for the District of Minnesota today announced that Abdelhamid Al-Madioum, 23, of St. Louis Park, Minnesota, has been charged by indictment with providing material support to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), a designated foreign terrorist organization.[Read More…]
- Higher Education: Children’s Savings Account Programs Can Help Families Build Savings and Envision CollegeBy Sam NewsDecember 11, 2020Eighty-two Children's Savings Account (CSA) programs operated and had collectively enrolled about 700,000 children in 2019, according to survey data from the nonprofit organization Prosperity Now. These programs—operated by states, cities, and other organizations—use a variety of strategies to enroll families, especially those with lower incomes, and help them save and prepare for college. For example, CSA programs enroll families by partnering with trusted organizations (e.g., schools) or through automatic enrollment, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and CSA experts. In addition, these programs help families build savings once children are enrolled by, for example, providing initial deposits or financial education. While experts GAO interviewed said savings may be modest given lower-income families' and programs' limited resources, CSA programs also aim to help lower-income families prepare for college, such as by increasing financial knowledge. There is evidence that CSA program strategies have positive short-term effects on families, including those with lower incomes. These effects include increased CSA program enrollment and participation, amounts saved, and educational expectations, based on research GAO reviewed (see figure). For example, strategies such as automatically enrolling families and providing financial contributions (e.g., initial deposits) may help CSA programs reach more families and encourage saving. Several studies of a CSA program that used both these strategies found increases in the number of children enrolled and the amount saved by enrolled families. One study found that families who were enrolled for 7 years saved over four times more of their own money, on average, than families who were not enrolled—$261 compared to $59. When including financial contributions from the CSA program, enrolled families had about six times more total savings ($1,851) compared to other families ($323). Enrollment and participation in CSA programs may also increase families' educational expectations for their children. For example, a study found that parents with children enrolled in one CSA program were nearly twice as likely to expect their children to attend college. However, information on college enrollment and other long-term effects on families participating in CSA programs is limited because most of the children have not yet reached college age. Effects of CSA Program Strategies in Three Commonly Assessed Areas Rising college costs have outpaced federal grant aid and placed more of the financial burden on students and their families. CSA programs help families, especially lower-income families, save for college—and other postsecondary education—by providing financial contributions and possibly other supports. A Senate Appropriations Committee report included provisions for GAO to examine various aspects of college savings account programs and their effectiveness. This report examines (1) the number of CSA programs and how they use strategies to help families, especially lower-income families, save and prepare for college; and (2) what is known about the effects of these strategies on families, including lower-income families. GAO reviewed 2016–2019 annual CSA program survey data collected by the nonprofit Prosperity Now. GAO also analyzed CFPB documents and the findings of 33 peer-reviewed studies from 2010 through 2019—and one working paper from 2017—that met GAO's criteria for inclusion, for example, used data from the United States. In addition, GAO interviewed officials from CFPB, the Department of Education, and four organizations that have expertise on these programs. For more information, contact Melissa Emrey-Arras at (617) 788-0534 or firstname.lastname@example.org.[Read More…]
- Secretary Blinken’s Call with Armenian Acting Prime Minister PashinyanBy Sam NewsJuly 14, 2021
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- COVID-19: Federal Efforts Could Be Strengthened by Timely and Concerted ActionsBy Sam NewsSeptember 21, 2020In the government’s ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Congress and the administration have taken action on multiple fronts to address challenges that have contributed to catastrophic loss of life and profound economic disruption. These actions have helped direct much-needed federal assistance to support many aspects of public life, including local public health systems and private-sector businesses. However, the nation faces continued public health risks and economic difficulties for the foreseeable future. Among other challenges, the public health system, already strained from months of responding to COVID-19 cases, will face the additional task of managing the upcoming flu season. At the same time, many of the federal, state, and local agencies responsible for responding to the ongoing public health emergency are called on to prepare for and respond to the current hurricane season. Timely and concerted federal leadership will be required in responding to these and other challenges. GAO has identified lessons learned and issues in need of continued attention by the Congress and the administration, including the need to collect reliable data that can drive decision-making; to establish mechanisms for accountability and transparency; and to protect against ongoing cyber threats to patient information, intellectual property, public health data, and intelligence. Attention to these issues can help to make federal efforts as effective as possible. GAO has also identified a number of opportunities to help the federal government prepare for the months ahead while improving the ongoing federal response: Medical Supply Chain The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), with support from the Department of Defense (DOD), have taken numerous, significant efforts to mitigate supply shortages and expand the medical supply chain. For example, the agencies have coordinated to deliver supplies directly to nursing homes and used Defense Production Act authorities to increase the domestic production of supplies. However, shortages of certain types of personal protective equipment and testing supplies remain due to a supply chain with limited domestic production and high global demand. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and FEMA have both identified shortages, and officials from seven of the eight states GAO interviewed in July and August 2020 identified previous or ongoing shortages of testing supplies, including swabs, reagents, tubes, pipettes, and transport media. Testing supply shortages have contributed to delays in turnaround times for testing results. Delays in processing test results have multiple serious consequences, including delays in isolating those who test positive and tracing their contacts in a timely manner, which can in turn exacerbate outbreaks by allowing the virus to spread undetected. In addition, states and other nonfederal entities have experienced challenges tracking supply requests made through the federal government and planning for future needs. GAO is making the following recommendations: HHS, in coordination with FEMA, should immediately document roles and responsibilities for supply chain management functions transitioning to HHS, including continued support from other federal partners, to ensure sufficient resources exist to sustain and make the necessary progress in stabilizing the supply chain. HHS, in coordination with FEMA, should further develop and communicate to stakeholders plans outlining specific actions the federal government will take to help mitigate supply chain shortages for the remainder of the pandemic. HHS and FEMA—working with relevant stakeholders—should devise interim solutions, such as systems and guidance and dissemination of best practices, to help states enhance their ability to track the status of supply requests and plan for supply needs for the remainder of the COVID-19 pandemic response. HHS and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) objected to GAO’s initial draft recommendations. GAO made revisions based on their comments. GAO maintains that implementation of its modified recommendations is both warranted and prudent. These actions could contribute to ensuring a more effective response by helping to mitigate challenges with the stability of the medical supply chain and the ability of nonfederal partners to track, plan, and budget for ongoing medical supply needs. Vaccines and Therapeutics Multiple federal agencies continue to support the development and manufacturing of vaccines and therapeutics to prevent and treat COVID-19. These efforts are aimed at accelerating the traditional timeline to create a vaccine (see figure). Traditional Timeline for Development and Creation of a Vaccine Note: See figure 5 in the report. As these efforts proceed, clarity on the federal government’s plans for distributing and administering vaccine, as well as timely, clear, and consistent communication to stakeholders and the public about those plans, is essential. DOD is supporting HHS in developing plans for nationwide distribution and administration of a vaccine. In September 2020, HHS indicated that it will soon send a report to Congress outlining a distribution plan, but did not provide a specific date for doing so. GAO recommends that HHS, with support from DOD, establish a time frame for documenting and sharing a national plan for distributing and administering COVID-19 vaccine, and in developing such a plan ensure that it is consistent with best practices for project planning and scheduling and outlines an approach for how efforts will be coordinated across federal agencies and nonfederal entities. DOD partially concurred with the recommendation, clarifying that it is supporting HHS in developing plans for nationwide distribution and administration of vaccine. HHS neither agreed nor disagreed with the recommendation, but noted factors that complicate the publication of a plan. GAO maintains that a time frame is necessary so all relevant stakeholders will be best positioned to begin their planning.On September 16, 2020, HHS and DOD released two documents outlining a strategy for any COVID-19 vaccine. GAO will evaluate these documents and report on them in future work.GAO will also continue to conduct related work, including examining federal efforts to accelerate the development and manufacturing of COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics. COVID-19 Data Data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggest a disproportionate burden of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths exists among racial and ethnic minority groups, but GAO identified gaps in these data. To help address these gaps, on July 22, 2020, CDC released a COVID-19 Response Health Equity Strategy. However, the strategy does not assess whether having the authority to require states and jurisdictions to report race and ethnicity information is necessary to ensure CDC can collect such data. CDC’s strategy also does not specify how it will involve key stakeholders, such as health care providers, laboratories, and state and jurisdictional health departments. GAO recommends that CDC (1) determine whether having the authority to require the reporting of race and ethnicity information for cases, hospitalizations, and deaths is necessary for ensuring more complete data, and if so, seek such authority from Congress; (2) involve key stakeholders to help ensure the complete and consistent collection of demographic data; and (3) take steps to help ensure its ability to comprehensively assess the long-term health outcomes of persons with COVID-19, including by race and ethnicity. HHS agreed with the recommendations. In addition, HHS’s data on COVID-19 in nursing homes do not capture the early months of the pandemic. HHS’s Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) began requiring nursing homes to report COVID-19 data to CDC by May 17, 2020, starting with information as of May 8, 2020, but made reporting prior to May 8, 2020 optional. By not requiring nursing homes to submit data from the first 4 months of 2020, HHS is limiting the usefulness of the data in helping to understand the effects of COVID-19 in nursing homes. GAO recommends that HHS, in consultation with CMS and CDC, develop a strategy to capture more complete data on COVID-19 cases and deaths in nursing homes retroactively back to January 1, 2020. HHS partially agreed with this recommendation by noting the value of having complete data, but expressed concern about the burden of collecting it. GAO maintains the importance of collecting these data to inform the government’s continued response and recovery, and HHS could ease the burden by incorporating data previously reported to CDC or to state or local public health offices. Economic Impact Payments The Department of the Treasury’s (Treasury) Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has issued economic impact payments (EIP) to all eligible individuals for whom IRS has the necessary information to do so; however, not everyone eligible was able to be initially identified. To help ensure all eligible recipients received their payments in a more timely manner, IRS took several actions to address challenges GAO reported on in June, including a policy change—reopening the Non-Filers tool registration period for federal benefit recipients and extending it through September 30—that should allow some eligible recipients to receive supplemental payments for qualifying children sooner than expected. However, Treasury and IRS lack updated information on how many eligible recipients have yet to receive these funds. The lack of such information could hinder outreach efforts and place potentially millions of individuals at risk of missing their payment. GAO recommends that Treasury, in coordination with IRS, (1) update and refine the estimate of eligible recipients who have yet to file for an EIP to help target outreach and communications efforts and (2) make estimates of eligible recipients who have yet to file for an EIP, and other relevant information, available to outreach partners to raise awareness about how and when to file for EIP. Treasury and IRS neither agreed nor disagreed with the recommendations and described actions they are taking in concert with the recommendations to notify around 9 million individuals who may be eligible for an EIP. Coronavirus Relief Fund The Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF) is the largest program established in the four COVID-19 relief laws that provides aid to states, the District of Columbia, localities, tribal governments, and U.S. territories. Audits of entities that receive federal funds, including CRF payments, are critical to the federal government’s ability to help safeguard those funds. Auditors that conduct single audits follow guidance in the Single Audit Act’s Compliance Supplement, which the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) updates and issues annually in coordination with federal agencies. OMB issued the 2020 Compliance Supplement in August 2020, but the Compliance Supplement specified that OMB is still working with federal agencies to identify the needs for additional guidance for auditing new COVID-19-related programs, including the CRF payments, as well as existing programs with compliance requirement changes. According to OMB, an addendum on COVID-19-related programs, including the CRF payments, will be issued in the fall of 2020. Further delays in issuing this guidance could adversely affect auditors’ ability to issue consistent and timely reports. GAO recommends that OMB, in consultation with Treasury, issue the addendum to the 2020 Compliance Supplement as soon as possible to provide the necessary audit guidance, as many single audit efforts are underway. OMB neither agreed nor disagreed with the recommendation. Guidance for K-12 Schools State and local school district officials tasked with reassessing their operating status and ensuring their school buildings are safe are generally relying on guidance and recommendations from federal, state, and local public health and education officials. However, portions of CDC’s guidance on reopening K-12 schools are inconsistent, and some federal guidance appears misaligned with CDC’s risk-based approach on school operating status. Based on GAO’s review, Education has updated the information and CDC has begun to do so. GAO recommends that CDC ensure that, as it makes updates to its guidance related to schools’ operating status, the guidance is cogent, clear, and internally consistent. HHS agreed with the recommendation. Tracking Contract Obligations Federal agencies are tracking contract actions and associated obligations in response to COVID-19 using a National Interest Action (NIA) code in the Federal Procurement Data System-Next Generation. The COVID-19 NIA code was established in March 2020 and was recently extended until March 31, 2021, while a draft of this report recommending that DHS and DOD extend the code beyond September 30, 2020, was with the agencies for comment. GAO has identified inconsistencies in establishing and closing these codes following previous emergencies, and has continued concerns with the criteria that DHS and DOD rely on to determine whether to extend or close a code and whether the code meets long-term needs. GAO recommends that DHS and DOD make updates to the 2019 NIA Code Memorandum of Agreement so as to enhance visibility for federal agencies, the public, and Congress on contract actions and associated obligations related to disaster events, and to ensure the criteria for extending or closing the NIA code reflect government-wide needs for tracking contract actions in longer-term emergencies, such as a pandemic. DHS and DOD did not agree, but GAO maintains implementation of its recommendation is essential. Address Cybersecurity Weaknesses Since March 2020, malicious cyber actors have exploited COVID-19 to target organizations that make up the health care and public health critical infrastructure sector, including government entities, such as HHS. GAO has identified numerous cybersecurity weaknesses at multiple HHS component agencies, including CMS, CDC, and FDA, over the last 6 years, such as weaknesses in key safeguards to limit, prevent, and detect inappropriate access to computer resources. Additionally, GAO’s March 2019 high-risk update identified cybersecurity and safeguarding the systems supporting the nation’s critical infrastructure, such as health care, as high-risk areas. As of July 2020, CMS, FDA, and CDC had made significant progress by implementing 350 (about 81 percent) of the 434 recommendations GAO issued in previous reports to address these weaknesses. Based on the imminent cybersecurity threats, GAO recommends that HHS expedite implementation of GAO’s prior recommendations regarding cybersecurity weaknesses at its component agencies. HHS agreed with the recommendation. As of September 10, 2020, the U.S. had over 6.3 million cumulative reported cases of COVID-19 and over 177,000 reported deaths, according to federal agencies. The country also continues to experience serious economic repercussions and turmoil. Four relief laws, including the CARES Act, were enacted as of September 2020 to provide appropriations to address the public health and economic threats posed by COVID-19. As of July 31, 2020, the federal government had obligated a total of $1.6 trillion and expended $1.5 trillion of the COVID-19 relief funds as reported by federal agencies on USAspending.gov. The CARES Act includes a provision for GAO to report bimonthly on its ongoing monitoring and oversight efforts related to the COVID-19 pandemic. This third report examines key actions the federal government has taken to address the COVID-19 pandemic and evolving lessons learned relevant to the nation’s response to pandemics. GAO reviewed data, documents, and guidance from federal agencies about their activities and interviewed federal and state officials, as well as industry representatives. GAO is making 16 new recommendations for agencies that are detailed in this Highlights and in the report. For more information, contact A. Nicole Clowers at (202) 512-7114 or email@example.com.[Read More…]