December 8, 2021

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Deputy Secretary Sherman’s Meeting with New Zealand Secretary Chris Seed

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Office of the Spokesperson

The below is attributable to Spokesperson Ned Price:

Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman met with New Zealand Chief Executive and Secretary of Foreign Affairs and Trade Chris Seed today.  The Deputy Secretary and Secretary Seed affirmed our strong partnership is rooted in our shared democratic values.  The Deputy Secretary congratulated Secretary Seed on a successful Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum hosted by New Zealand under difficult circumstances, and the leaders discussed the APEC Informal Leaders’ Retreat on July 16 hosted by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern with President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. participating.  The leaders promised close cooperation to fight climate change, recover from COVID-19, strengthen multilateral organizations and the international rules-based order, support Pacific Island countries, and promote human rights, the rule of law, and regional stability.  Together the United States and New Zealand will continue to tackle the greatest challenges confronting our world in order to ensure a free, open, secure, and prosperous Indo-Pacific.

 

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    What GAO Found The nation is concurrently responding to, and recovering from, the COVID-19 pandemic, as the number of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths have declined in recent months. Among the factors that have contributed to the decline in these metrics, the development and administration of multiple vaccines across the nation have been key. About 53.1 percent of the U.S. population 12 years and older—almost 150.7 million individuals—had been fully vaccinated as of June 23, 2021, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Continuing to deliver “shots in arms” will be a priority for the federal government, as individuals yet to be vaccinated remain at risk from COVID-19 and as new variants of the virus continue to emerge. A successful vaccination program is seen as essential to further stabilizing the economy and safely returning to prepandemic activities, such as in-person learning for students in the 2021–22 school year. 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According to the former Assistant Secretary who initiated the restructure, although PHEMCE was successful in advancing the development of medical countermeasures, its consensus-driven process did not reflect the urgency needed and PHEMCE proceedings created security vulnerabilities. ASPR officials acknowledged that the changes ASPR made to the PHEMCE from 2018 to 2020 did not fully achieve the desired aims and created other challenges. The office is in the process of reassessing and reestablishing new organizational processes for the PHEMCE, but it has not yet finalized planning documents, including an organizational charter and implementation plan, to guide those efforts. GAO recommends that ASPR develop and document its plans for restructuring the PHEMCE. 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Not maintaining such documentation is inconsistent with HHS’s policy for records management and leaves Congress and key stakeholders without assurance that steps taken are advancing national preparedness for natural, accidental, and intentional threats. GAO recommends that ASPR implement records management practices that include developing, maintaining, and securing documentation related to PHEMCE activities and deliberations, including those related to the SNS. HHS, including ASPR, agreed with this recommendation. The nationwide need for supplies to respond to COVID-19 quickly exceeded the quantity of supplies contained in the SNS. Thus, ASPR used procurement processes in addition to its standard process, including direct shipment of supplies from vendors. Through this direct shipment process, supplies purchased by ASPR were not used to replenish the SNS but instead were primarily distributed from vendors directly to state, local, territorial, and tribal governments. Although ASPR has documented policies and procedures for its standard procurement process, ASPR did not have documented policies and procedures, including related control and monitoring activities, to address payment integrity risks for its direct shipment procurement process. Without written policies and procedures documenting how ASPR tracks the direct shipment and receipt of supplies before issuing payments, there is an increased risk that ASPR may make improper payments to vendors for incorrect supplies or quantities or for supplies that the intended recipients did not receive. In addition, it is difficult for management to assess the adequacy of controls over the direct shipment procurement process, and ASPR lacks assurance that its staff fully understand the process and properly and consistently perform their duties. 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Guidance from the Office of Management and Budget to federal agencies, including HHS, noted the importance of spending transparency and regular reporting to help safeguard taxpayer dollars. GAO recommends that HHS communicate information about, and facilitate oversight of, the department’s use of COVID-19 relief funds by providing projected time frames for its planned spending in the spend plans it submits to Congress. HHS partially concurred with the recommendation and stated that the department would aim to incorporate some time frames on planned spending where that information may be available such as time frames for select grants to states. Higher Education Grants The Department of Education (Education) has faced inherent challenges that increase the risk of improper payments for its Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) grants to institutions of higher education to prevent, prepare for, and respond to COVID-19. For example, funding needed to be processed and distributed expeditiously because of health and economic threats to institutions of higher education posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. GAO tested Education’s procedures for approving and processing HEERF grants through a sample of obligations and found that the department had not effectively designed and implemented procedures needed to identify erroneous obligations after awarding the grants. GAO estimated that for 5.5 percent of schools receiving HEERF grants (about 262 of 4,764 schools in GAO’s sample), Education awarded grants that exceeded the amounts allocated—including three instances in GAO’s sample for which Education obligated $20 million more than was allocated. 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The Internal Revenue Code and the CARES Act generally require IRS to issue certain refunds within 90 days from the date when a complete application for a tentative carryback adjustment is filed or 90 days from the last day of the month in which the return is due, whichever is later. IRS data show that the agency is not meeting the statutory refund requirement for these relief measures and that as of May 1, 2021, the average processing time for refunds was 154 days, excluding additional time for final processing and distribution. IRS officials said it is taking longer to process returns because IRS facilities that process paper returns continue to operate at reduced capacity to accommodate social distancing. In the meantime, transparent communication about these issues could help taxpayers know when to expect their refunds. Specifically, an explanation on IRS’s website that processing times for tentative refunds may exceed the expected 90 days because of service disruptions would provide taxpayers with more accurate information and expectations for receiving a refund. GAO recommends that IRS clearly communicate on its website that there are delays beyond the statutory 90-day timeline in processing tentative refunds. IRS neither agreed nor disagreed with this recommendation. 2021 Tax Filing Season IRS is experiencing delays in processing certain returns received in 2021, resulting in extended time frames for processing returns for some taxpayers. IRS reported that it is taking longer than usual to manually review some of these returns. Specifically, as of the end of the 2021 filing season, IRS had about 25.5 million unprocessed individual and business returns, including about 1.2 million returns from its 2020 backlog, and 13.7 million returns that it had suspended because of errors. IRS staff must manually review these returns with errors. IRS typically has unprocessed returns in its inventory at the end of the filing season, but not to this extent. For example, at the end of the 2019 filing season, IRS had 8.3 million unprocessed individual and business returns, including 2.7 million returns suspended for errors. IRS’s annual tax filing activities include processing more than 150 million individual and business tax returns electronically or on paper. With significantly more returns currently being held for manual review than in prior years, more taxpayers are trying to get information about the status of their returns and refunds. However, taxpayers have had difficulty obtaining status updates on their refunds from IRS, either by phone or online. IRS’s website does not contain all of the relevant information regarding delays in processing 2021 returns and issuing taxpayers’ refunds. Additionally, IRS’s automated message on its toll-free telephone line for individual taxpayers has not been updated to explain refund delays or to include any other alerts associated with the 2021 filing season.GAO recommends that IRS update relevant pages of its website and, if feasible, add alerts to its toll-free telephone lines to more clearly and prominently explain the nature and extent of individual refund delays occurring for returns that taxpayers filed in 2021. IRS neither agreed nor disagreed with this recommendation. This report contains additional recommendations related to disseminating information related to leave benefits for employees. Why GAO Did This Study As of mid-June 2021, the U.S. had about 33.4 million reported cases of COVID-19 and about 593,000 reported deaths, according to CDC. The country also continues to experience serious economic repercussions from the pandemic. Six relief laws, including the CARES Act, had been enacted as of May 31, 2021, to address the public health and economic threats posed by COVID-19. As of May 31, 2021, of the $4.7 trillion appropriated by these six laws for COVID-19 relief—including about $1.6 trillion appropriated by ARPA, which was enacted in March 2021—the federal government had obligated a total of $3.5 trillion and had expended $3.0 trillion, as reported by federal agencies. The CARES Act includes a provision for GAO to report on its ongoing monitoring and oversight efforts related to the COVID-19 pandemic. This report examines the federal government’s continued efforts to respond to, and recover from, the COVID-19 pandemic. GAO reviewed data, documents, and guidance from federal agencies about their activities. 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    In U.S GAO News
    Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is caused by an extremely stressful event and can develop after the threat of death or serious injury as in military combat. Experts predict that about 15 percent of servicemembers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan will develop PTSD. Efforts by VA to inform new veterans, including Reserve and National Guard members, about the expanded availability of VA health care services could result in an increased demand for VA PTSD services. GAO identified the approaches DOD uses to identify servicemembers at risk for PTSD and examined if VA has the information it needs to determine whether it can meet an increase in demand for PTSD services. GAO visited military bases and VA facilities, reviewed relevant documents, and interviewed DOD and VA officials to determine how DOD identifies servicemembers at risk for PTSD, and what information VA has to estimate demand for VA PTSD services.DOD uses two approaches to identify servicemembers at risk for PTSD: the combat stress control program and the post-deployment health assessment questionnaire. The combat stress control program trains servicemembers to recognize the early onset of combat stress, which can lead to PTSD. Symptoms of combat stress and PTSD include insomnia, nightmares, and difficulties coping with relationships. To assist servicemembers in the combat theater, teams of DOD mental health professionals travel to units to reinforce the servicemembers' knowledge of combat stress symptoms and to help identify those who may be at risk for combat stress and PTSD. DOD also uses the post-deployment health assessment questionnaire to identify physical ailments and mental health issues commonly associated with deployments, including PTSD. The questionnaire includes the following four screening questions that VA and DOD mental health experts developed to identify servicemembers at risk for PTSD: Have you ever had any experience that was so frightening, horrible, or upsetting that, in the past month, you (1) have had any nightmares about it or thought about it when you did not want to; (2) tried hard not to think about it or went out of your way to avoid situations that remind you of it; (3) were constantly on guard, watchful, or easily startled; and/or (4) felt numb or detached from others, activities, or your surroundings? VA lacks the information it needs to determine whether it can meet an increase in demand for VA PTSD services. VA does not have a count of the total number of veterans currently receiving PTSD services at its medical facilities and Vet Centers--community-based VA facilities that offer trauma and readjustment counseling. Without this information, VA cannot estimate the number of new veterans its medical facilities and Vet Centers could treat for PTSD. VA has two reports on the number of veterans it currently treats, with each report counting different subsets of veterans receiving PTSD services. Veterans who are receiving VA PTSD services may be counted in both reports, one of the reports, or not included in either report. VA does receive demographic information from DOD, which includes home addresses of servicemembers that could help VA predict which medical facilities or Vet Centers servicemembers may access for health care. By assuming that 15 percent or more of servicemembers who have left active duty status will develop PTSD, VA could use the home zip codes of servicemembers to broadly estimate the number of servicemembers who may need VA PTSD services and identify the VA facilities located closest to their homes. However, predicting which veterans will seek VA care and at which facilities is inherently uncertain, particularly given that the symptoms of PTSD may not appear for years.
    [Read More…]
  • Operation Legend Expanded to Indianapolis
    In Crime News
    Today, the expansion of Operation Legend was announced in Indianapolis.  Operation Legend is a sustained, systematic and coordinated law enforcement initiative in which federal law enforcement agencies work in conjunction with state and local law enforcement officials to fight violent crime.  The Operation was first launched on July 8 in Kansas City, MO., and expanded on July 22, 2020, to Chicago and Albuquerque, to Cleveland, Detroit, and Milwaukee on July 29, 2020, and to St. Louis and Memphis on August 6, 2020.
    [Read More…]
  • The Art-tivist Movement in Cuba: One Year and No Dialogue
    In Crime Control and Security News
    Antony J. Blinken, [Read More…]
  • Secretary Blinken’s Meeting with Israeli Alternate Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid 
    In Crime Control and Security News
    Office of the [Read More…]
  • Statement by the Global Coalition to Defeat Daesh/ISIS
    In Crime Control and Security News
    Office of the [Read More…]

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