Briefing with Deputy Assistant Secretary for Passport Services Rachel Arndt, Bureau of Consular Affairs On the State Department’s Passport Services

Rachel Arndt, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Passport Services Bureau of Consular Affairs

Via Teleconference

MS PORTER: Good morning, everyone, and thank you for joining the State Department’s press briefing on the status of our passport services. Joining us today is Deputy Assistant Secretary for Passport Services Rachel Arndt from the department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs. Deputy Assistant Secretary Arndt oversees and directs the department’s passports operations here in Washington, as well as its network of passport agencies and centers across the United States.

Today’s briefing is on the record; however, the contents will be embargoed until the end of the call. Deputy Assistant Secretary Arndt will begin with a brief opening statement, and then we’ll take your questions. With that, I’ll hand it over to you, DAS Arndt.

MS ARNDT: Good morning. Thank you for joining us today. As noted, I’m here to talk to you about the status of the State Department’s passport services. We as a department continue to recover from the effects of COVID-19 while we work to meet passport demand as U.S. citizens increasingly seek to travel overseas again. The success of the U.S. Government’s COVID-19 vaccination program means Americans will be able to get back to normal in many ways this summer. However, the pandemic’s disruptions continue to have a ripple effect on all steps of the passport process, including the amount of time it currently takes us to process a passport application.

We are surging staff, both adjudicators and contractors, back into the office at agencies across the country as COVID restrictions ease. But it will take time for our wait times to fall from the current 12 to 18 weeks to pre-pandemic levels. This means people who submit new passport applications right now will not get their new passport until well into the fall. Last-minute passport appointments are extremely limited. U.S. citizens who wish to travel overseas this summer and do not currently have a passport may need to make alternate travel plans.

We also want to remind U.S. citizens many parts of the world are experiencing additional waves of COVID-19, and they may have their travel plans unexpectedly interrupted due to the health situation in their destination. We’ve been doing and continue to do everything we can to serve the American public while prioritizing the health and safety of our staff and of our customers.

As we bring more staff back into the office, we will continue to be as transparent as possible in updating the American public on how long it will take to get a passport.

With that, I will take your questions. Thank you.

OPERATOR: Once again, for questions press 1-0, please. You will hear acknowledgment that you’ve been placed in queue. Just listen for your name on the line.

MS PORTER: Let’s go to Christina Ruffini.

QUESTION: Hi, good morning. I’m wondering, you said you’re surging staff back into the office, and contractors. When you say that, is that pre-pandemic levels? Are you seeking to add more staff in order to deal with the backlog? And what is the process for someone who needs an emergency passport or absolutely has to travel? Is there any way to expedite, and what are the odds of that happening? Thank you.

MS ARNDT: Thank you, yes. We are ramping up our staffing, as noted. This summer we’re going to have over 150 staff returning to 21 agencies across the country, and that will increase our capacity to process applications more quickly. We are looking at surging back to pre-pandemic staffing levels and additional staff for both government and contractor staff.

The – as far as the second part of your question, for getting service right now, you can go online and make – get the application form for your passport and submit it by mail, if you’re eligible. And if you have to travel urgently and still need the passport, we do have extremely limited appointments for customers who have urgent international travel in the next 72 hours, or three business days, for reasons other than life-and-death emergencies. So that, you would need to go online to our online appointment system to make an appointment, and that appointment would have to be within three business days of the international travel. One caveat is if you need a foreign visa for your travel, the date of your appointment can be within 10 business days of your international travel.

MS PORTER: Let’s go to Nick Wadhams.

QUESTION: Hi. Sorry. Sorry, can you hear me?

MS PORTER: Yes, we can hear you.

QUESTION: Okay, thanks. Sorry, I missed it just at the beginning. You said the wait times will be 12 to 18 weeks? And then also, can you address the issue of staff who are working on visas for foreigners looking to come into the United States? Do you have any sense of when the travel restrictions or the – for foreigners from Schengen countries and other nations like India and Brazil will be lifted? Thanks.

MS ARNDT: Let me address the second part of your question by saying that visa services are certainly outside of my swim lane. However, I will say that COVID-19 has been a disruptive force across the globe, and I know that many of our operations are impacted by that.

As far as – to go back to the routine passport processing times, currently our wait time for both new and renewal routine passport applications can be up to 18 weeks, and that includes our processing time, the initial internal intake of the applications, and mailing. Customers can pay an additional $60 to expedite their applications, and the wait times for the expedited applications are currently up to 12 weeks, and again, depending on the mailing time. We really encourage folks to apply for or renew their passport at least six months ahead of when you’ll need one to avoid any of those last-minute problems.

I would also note that when checking your expiration date, folks should also check the dates of their children’s passports as those are valid for only five years instead of the adults’, which are 10 years, and we find that people run into some difficulties if they don’t check their children’s passports. Thank you.

MS PORTER: Let’s go to Courtney McBride.

QUESTION: Thank you. We’ve heard from some travelers who have been unable to even get through on the renewal lines or the passport agency phone lines. They’ve cited long hold times followed by disconnections, and I’m wondering if your staffing surge also improves – includes improvements to those systems.

And then separately, the chairman and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee wrote to Secretary Blinken urging acceleration of processing and asking how Congress could potentially assist with resources or other steps, and I’m just wondering whether the department intends to respond by their Friday deadline. Thanks.

MS ARNDT: Yes, thank you. I am certain that we have received that letter and will respond promptly. As to the call center, we note that the majority of the callers are actually requesting information on the status of their pending applications, which you can find that online at passportstatus.state.gov. Representatives will not be able to provide the status updates by phone as they’re prioritizing life-or-death emergency appointments and expedite service upgrades. So it may take weeks for that status to be available as we are processing and intaking applications.

The passport information center, or our call center, is experiencing just unprecedented call volumes for many of the same reasons that our wait times are increasing. So we are addressing this by bringing on more staff to answer calls, as local conditions permit, and then working with our contractor for the call center to increase their staffing levels, and they are doing this with some aggressive hiring also, so also trying to surge on the call center staffing. Thank you.

MS PORTER: Let’s go to Lara Jakes.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing the call. Obviously, you know there’s huge interest in this issue. Two questions. One, what is the backlog, the current backlog of passports right now? I know you’ve mentioned the wait time, but how does that equate into actual applications that are sitting and waiting? And then secondly, I was curious. You mentioned that parents should also be looking at their children’s passports since they expire within a five-year period as opposed to a 10-year period. But as you know, children are required when they reapply to do it in-person – both parents need to be there. Quite an onerous process as opposed to just mailing it in, which is what you’re recommending for adults to do. Has there been any consideration of waiving those in-person requirements or those two-parent requirements for children to allow them to renew their passports online as well? Thanks.

MS ARNDT: Thank you. Yes, our backlog currently is somewhere in the range of a million and a half to 2 million applications. That is somewhat higher than what we would normally expect to see. However, that was really because as the travelers were ramping up with the vaccinations availability, the workload started coming in faster than we had – we would normally see. And you’re correct that we do require for the children’s passports to – and all first-time applicants actually must apply in person. And when we say “apply in person,” we can use a passport acceptance facility such as the post office, clerks of court, libraries, local government offices, and we do have information on travel.state.gov where people can locate the nearest location for that. And many of those facilities are also ramping back up their appointment availabilities similar to what we are doing. Thank you.

MODERATOR: Let’s go to Conor Finnegan.

QUESTION: Hey, thanks for doing this. Can you say how many, if any, of the regional passport offices are fully reopened? And if some of them are in cities that are fully reopened otherwise in accordance with their local restrictions, why aren’t these offices now fully reopened and fully restaffed so that they can take more appointments, more walk-in appointments, more emergency appointments? Thank you.

MS ARNDT: Yes, as of July 12th, we had passport agencies where staff was returning, all of the staff was returning in 16 – I’m sorry, 17 cities. We have an additional five that we are anticipating approval to move to be completely open with all staff back in the office. What we are doing with the limited appointments, and those are available, again, on a first-come, first-served basis, is we are trying to address all of our workflow streams, and that means we have the majority of our work comes in through the mail. It takes four to five times longer to assist a customer at a counter than in the back room looking at the documentation, so what we’re doing to ensure that we get through all of the applications as quickly as possible is to continue to focus on those that are pending that people have applied for in the past several months. Thank you.

MODERATOR: Let’s go to Eric Katz.

QUESTION: Thank you. I wanted to ask, first of all, how important is it to have workers in person? There’s in-person application process that you’ve gone over, but to what extent can sort of normal passport processing happen when the staff is working remotely? And secondly, when you talked about surging up offices, is there any actual new hiring taking place, or is this just returning employees who had been remote back to the office and adding contractors? I – just to add on to that – sorry – I know there was this – the department told the IG in 2019 that there was a critical shortage of passport specialists, so has that been addressed, and are you trying to add on to the that? Are you still trying to get back to sort of the normal level?

MS ARNDT: Yes. So our – actually, passport specialists need to be physically present in the office to process the passports. They are not processing remotely or from home. What we have for our issuance process, we require a connectivity to systems and databases that are currently only accessible from within our facilities. So we’re trying to adjudicate on site to help us safeguard the customers’ personally identifiable information and to ensure the integrity of the entire application process. So we’re maintaining very high standards of security and privacy protection for the customers, and we’re securing their sensitive documents like their birth certificates and naturalization certificates in our offices. And, of course, the physical printing and mailing of the passport books and cards occurs from our facility.

As to the hiring, we are doing dual-track, as you noted, bringing back additional folks who had been out of the office and we are also ramping up and surging to meet the higher demand levels. It does take some time to hire staff, but we – in the interim, we have – in addition to surging our staff for both contract and government, we are expanding our overtime work at all locations and we are continuing to increase the number of appointments available at all of our public passport agencies and centers. And then we are also working with our partners to expand staffing capacity at the front end for processing at our lockbox facilities where they open the mail and enter – data enter the information into the system so it’s accessible to us. Thank you.

MS PORTER: Let’s go to Michel Ghandour, please.

QUESTION: Thank you for doing the call. What about the U.S. citizens who are abroad and they need to renew their passports? Do they have to wait between 12 and 18 weeks too?

MS ARNDT: Yes, our embassies and consulates are currently providing emergency passport services and in some cases routine passport services to U.S. citizens overseas. That is dependent upon the particular location. So anyone who needs passport services abroad, the U.S. citizen should contact the U.S. embassy or consulate that’s closest to them, and they can find information on the services and the operations available on each of the embassies’ or consulates’ webpage. And – that information is updated weekly. Thank you.

MS PORTER: Let’s take our last question from Ted Daniel, please.

QUESTION: Hi, good morning. Is State aware that people are selling passport appointments online and is anything being done to stop that?

MS ARNDT: Yes, we are aware of the issues and we are working to prevent them. The Department of State does not charge a fee to solely book an emergency appointment at one of our agencies or centers, so if anyone receives a request for payment for scheduling a U.S. passport appointment, that should be considered fraudulent. You can go online and see the full schedule of passport fees, again, on travel.state.gov if anyone is interested in that.

And I’d also like to say that the department is not affiliated with any third-party appointment booking services, and we’ve seen numerous instances of falsified appointment bookings through these vendors. And unfortunately, we may not be able to honor appointments booked via third party, so we are aware and are working to try to rectify that situation. Thank you.

MS PORTER: It looks like we have Courtney McBride of Wall Street Journal back in the queue. Courtney, if you’re with us, we’ll actually take you as the last question.

QUESTION: Thank you so much. The department has attributed some of these extended turnaround times not just to staffing but to delays with the postal service, and for its part, USPS expressed some surprise when we talked to them about this estimate of six weeks’ mailing time between the consumer and the processing facilities. I’m just wondering if you can explain how you arrived at that number and where the discrepancy might lie.

MS ARNDT: Thank you. Yes, we have – that part of the process is not something, obviously, that we can control. So what we are relying on that is the – some anecdotal evidence from when passport applicants have identified that they have submitted their application and when it is received at our processing or intake processing facility. And it’s only when it’s received at our processing facility that we can actually track it and then only when it’s data entered that we will be able to provide a status update to the applicant on their passport.

MS PORTER: Thank you all for joining this morning’s press briefing. That concludes the contents of the briefing. The embargo is now lifted. Have a wonderful rest of your day.

More from: Rachel Arndt, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Passport Services Bureau of Consular Affairs

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    The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) has designed policies to address the risk of regulatory capture by reducing the potential benefit to industry of capturing the examination process, reducing avenues of inducement, and promoting a culture of independence and public service (see figure). Framework for Reducing Risk and Minimizing Consequences of Regulatory Capture FDIC has several policies for documenting bank examination decisions that help promote transparent decision-making and assign responsibility for decisions. Such policies are likely to help reduce benefits to industry of capturing the examination process. However, GAO found that some examinations were not implemented consistent with FDIC policies and that gaps in FDIC policies limited their effectiveness. For example, GAO found that managers sometimes did not clearly document how they concluded that banks had addressed recommendations. By improving adherence to agency policies, FDIC management could better address threats to capture in the examination process. GAO found that FDIC has policies to address potential conflicts of interest that could help block or reduce avenues of inducement. For example, FDIC has post-employment conflict-of-interest policies designed to prevent former employees from exerting undue influence on FDIC and to reduce industry's ability to induce current FDIC employees with prospective employment arrangements. One such policy requires the agency to review the workpapers of examiners-in-charge who accept employment with banks they examined in the prior 18 months. However, FDIC has not fully implemented a process for identifying when to review the workpapers of departing examiners to assess whether independence has been compromised. In particular, FDIC does not have a process for collecting information about departing employees' future employment. By revising its examiner-departure processes, the agency could better identify when to initiate workpaper reviews. FDIC has identified regulatory capture as a risk as part of its enterprise risk management process. The agency has documented 11 mitigation strategies that could help address that risk. Identified mitigation strategies include rotating examiners-in-charge, national examination training, and ethics requirements. FDIC supervises about 3,300 financial institutions to evaluate their safety and soundness. Some analyses by academic researchers have identified regulatory capture in supervision as one potential factor contributing to the 2007–2009 financial crisis. Regulatory capture is defined as a regulator acting in the interest of the regulated industry rather than in the public interest. GAO was asked to review regulatory capture in financial regulation. This report examines FDIC's (1) processes for encouraging transparency and accountability in the bank examination process, (2) processes to minimize potential conflicts of interest among examination staff, and (3) agency-wide efforts to address the risks of regulatory capture and compromised independence. GAO reviewed FDIC's policies and enterprise risk management framework, analyzed bank examination workpapers, and interviewed supervisory staff. GAO is making four recommendations to FDIC related to managing the risk of regulatory capture, including improving documentation of banks' progress at addressing FDIC recommendations and revising examiner-departure processes. FDIC neither agreed nor disagreed with these recommendations, but described actions it would take in response to them. FDIC's actions, if fully implemented, would address two of the four recommendations. For more information, contact Michael Clements at (202) 512-8678 or clementsm@gao.gov.
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  • VA COVID-19 Procurements: Pandemic Underscores Urgent Need to Modernize Supply Chain
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found Like most medical institutions nationwide, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) faced difficulties obtaining medical supplies, including personal protective equipment for its medical workforce, particularly in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. Long-standing problems with its antiquated inventory management system exacerbated VA's challenges. GAO found VA obligated over $4 billion for COVID-19-related products, such as ventilators, and services, such as information technology to support VA's telework environment, as of May 2021. GAO also found that some vendors were unable to deliver personal protective equipment, which resulted in VA terminating some contracts, particularly early in the pandemic. VA also took additional steps to screen vendors. VA has several initiatives underway to modernize its supply chain and prepare for future public health emergencies, but each faces delays and is in early stages (see figure). For example: Inventory management. VA intended to replace its system with the Defense Medical Logistics Standard Support (DMLSS), with initial implementation in October 2019, and enterprise-wide implementation by 2027. Prior to the pandemic, however, this schedule was at significant risk. VA hopes to accelerate full implementation to 2025, and has received COVID-19 supplemental funds to help, but it is too soon to tell if this will occur. Regional Readiness Centers. VA planned to establish four centers—as central sources of critical medical supplies—by December 2020. As of March 2021, VA has not completed a concept of operations or implementation plan for the project. VA faces an additional year delay in achieving full operational capability, which is now expected in 2023. According to VA officials, the pandemic, among other things, contributed to delays. Warstopper program. VA seeks participation in this Defense Logistics Agency program, which would allow VA emergency access to critical supplies. Legislation recently was introduced to require VA participation. However, as GAO reported in March 2021, several questions remain, such as the range of products the program will cover, the amount of funding needed, and the way the program links to Regional Readiness Centers. Department of Veterans Affairs' Selected Ongoing and New Supply Chain Initiatives, Fiscal Years 2021 through 2028 Why GAO Did This Study In March 2020 and March 2021, Congress appropriated $19.6 billion and $17 billion in supplemental funds, respectively, for VA's COVID-19 response effort. VA also authorized use of emergency flexibilities and automated aspects of its inventory system. In accordance with Congress's direction in the CARES Act to monitor the exercise of authorities and use of funds provided to prepare for, respond to, and recover from the pandemic, relevant committees requested our sustained focus on VA. GAO was asked to assess VA's acquisition management during its COVID-19 pandemic response. This report examines VA's efforts to obtain and track COVID-19-related products and services amid its ongoing struggle to improve its inventory and supply chain management. GAO reviewed federal procurement data, analyzed selected VA contract documents, reviewed selected interagency agreements, assessed VA documents on modernization and other initiatives, and interviewed VA officials and staff.
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  • VA Police: Actions Needed to Improve Data Completeness and Accuracy on Use of Force Incidents at Medical Centers
    In U.S GAO News
    The Department of Veterans Affairs' (VA) policy on use of force states that police officers must use the minimal level of force that is reasonably necessary to gain control of a situation and should only utilize physical control methods on an individual when the force is justified by the individual's actions. To guide officers, VA developed a Use of Force Continuum Scale to define and clarify the categories of force that can be used. Categories of Force on the VA’s Use of Force Continuum Scale According to VA policy, all police officers must receive training on the VA's use of force policy when hired and biannually thereafter. Officers are trained—through classroom lectures and scenarios that emphasize effective communication techniques—to use the minimal level of force to deescalate a situation. Officers record use of force incidents electronically and the chief of police decides which, if any, use of force incidents need to be investigated in accordance with VA guidance. Chiefs of Police at the six facilities GAO visited conducted investigations in a similar manner, by reviewing evidence and comparing an officer's action with the VA's use of force policy to determine whether actions were justified. While most investigations are conducted at the local level, VA headquarters may also run investigations for certain incidents, such as when it receives a complaint against an officer. VA police officers record incidents in a database, Report Executive, but GAO's analysis indicates that VA data on use of force incidents are not sufficiently complete and accurate for reporting numbers or trends at medical centers nationwide. For example, GAO found that 176 out of 1,214 use of force incident reports did not include the specific type of force used. Further, Report Executive does not track incidents by individual medical centers. By addressing these limitations, VA can more effectively monitor use of force trends by type of force or medical facility, among other variables, to understand the VA's use of force incidents nationwide. GAO also found that VA does not systematically collect or analyze use of force investigation findings from local medical centers, limiting its ability to provide effective oversight. Specifically, there is no policy requiring Chiefs of Police to submit all investigations on use of force to VA headquarters, and VA does not have a database designed to collect and analyze data on use of force investigations. Collecting and analyzing such data nationwide would allow VA to better assess the impact of its deescalation policies and improve the agency's oversight efforts. About 5,000 VA police officers are responsible for securing and protecting 138 VA medical centers across the country. These officers are authorized to investigate crimes, make arrests, and carry firearms. The Dr. Chris Kirkpatrick Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017 included a provision that GAO assess aspects of the VA police services. This report addresses (1) what the VA's policies are on the use of force by police officers at medical centers, and what training officers receive on the use of force; (2) how VA records and investigates use of force incidents at medical centers; and (3) the extent to which VA sufficiently collects and analyzes use of force data at medical centers. To address these objectives, GAO reviewed VA policies, procedures, and training materials on the use of force and interviewed VA officials at headquarters and six local medical centers, selected to represent varying size and locations. GAO reviewed VA data on use of force incidents recorded from May 10, 2019, through May 10, 2020—the most recent full year data were available. GAO is making five recommendations, including that VA improve the completeness and accuracy of its use of force data; implement a tool to analyze use of force incidents at medical centers nationwide; ensure that medical centers submit all use of force investigations to VA headquarters; and analyze the use of force investigation data. The VA concurred with each of GAO's recommendations. For more information, contact Gretta L. Goodwin at (202) 512-8777 or goodwing@gao.gov.
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  • Rule of Law Assistance: Agency Efforts Are Guided by Various Strategies, and Overseas Missions Should Ensure that Programming Is Fully Coordinated
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found The Department of State (State) and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) allocated more than $2.7 billion for rule of law assistance from fiscal years 2014 through 2018—the latest available data as of GAO's review. Of that, State allocated over $2 billion and USAID allocated over $700 million. State and USAID funded some of these programs through the Department of Justice (DOJ). Rule of law assistance funded a variety of activities including improving justice institutions, legal reform, and promoting a culture of lawfulness. The agencies implemented these programs globally but allocated most funds to the Western Hemisphere and Afghanistan. Global Distribution of Bilateral Rule of Law Assistance Allocations, Fiscal Years 2014–2018 After Congress appropriates funding, agencies determine rule of law allocations through the foreign assistance budget process. State and USAID identify rule of law as a goal in agency-wide strategic documents and hold an annual interagency roundtable regarding rule of law assistance to determine those allocations. Rule of law assistance is guided by national and agency-, bureau-, and mission-specific strategies that are linked to the national security goals of the United States. These strategies discuss the agencies' roles and responsibilities in improving the rule of law. State and USAID guidance highlights the importance of coordination between agencies as they design and implement rule of law assistance, but not all agencies are included in some of the key coordination mechanisms used in four countries GAO selected for review. Agency officials in the selected countries cited the use of some informal and formal coordination practices, such as the use of law enforcement working groups, but State policy does not require all entities that may be involved in rule of law assistance to participate in these working groups. For example, in three of the four selected countries, officials described coordinating rule of law assistance, in part, through these working groups, which may not include critical agencies such as USAID. According to State policy, these working groups are designed to achieve other goals using agencies and offices that are not involved in providing rule of law assistance. Without verifying that interagency coordination includes all relevant entities, missions may not know whether they are fully leveraging interagency resources or ensuring that they do not duplicate or overlap rule of law assistance. Why GAO Did This Study Rule of law strengthens protection of fundamental rights, ensures a robust civil society, and serves as a foundation for democratic governance and economic growth. According to State, countries with a strong rule of law provide a more level playing field for American businesses to engage and compete, and countries with a weak rule of law can potentially export transnational threats and economic insecurity, undermining the interests of the United States. GAO was asked to review U.S. rule of law assistance around the world. This report examines (1) how State and USAID allocated funds for this assistance in fiscal years 2014 through 2018, (2) how agencies strategically plan and allocate this assistance globally, and (3) what processes agencies have to design, implement, and coordinate this assistance in selected countries. GAO reviewed State, USAID, and DOJ documents and data for fiscal years 2014 through 2018 and interviewed officials in Colombia, Kosovo, Liberia, the Philippines, and Washington, D.C. GAO chose these countries on the basis of funding amounts and other factors.
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    In U.S GAO News
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  • Higher Education: Children’s Savings Account Programs Can Help Families Build Savings and Envision College
    In U.S GAO News
    Eighty-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 emreyarrasm@gao.gov.
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  • Priority Open Recommendations: Department of Health and Human Services
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found In April 2020, GAO identified 55 priority recommendations for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Since then, HHS has implemented eight of those recommendations by, among other things, taking actions to improve the quality of care in the Indian Health Service's federally-operated facilities and improve the accuracy and completeness of Medicaid data to expedite their use for program oversight. In addition to the eight priority recommendations HHS implemented, four recommendations are no longer open priority recommendations, primarily because they became a lower priority as a result of recent regulatory or programmatic changes. In May 2021, GAO identified 18 additional priority recommendations for HHS—including some recommendations related to the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic—bringing the total number of priority recommendations to 61. These recommendations involve the following areas: COVID-19 response and other public health emergency preparedness; Public health and human services program oversight; Food and Drug Administration oversight; National efforts to prevent, respond to, and recover from drug misuse; Improper payments in Medicaid and Medicare; Medicaid program; Medicare program; Health information technology and cybersecurity; and Health insurance premium tax credit payment integrity. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic underscores the need for sustained attention on improving HHS's operations. Implementing our priority recommendations could help improve the efficiency and effectiveness of key federal health care programs and funding, including those relevant to the nation's ongoing response to COVID-19. Why GAO Did This Study Priority open recommendations are the GAO recommendations that warrant priority attention from heads of key departments or agencies because their implementation could save large amounts of money; improve congressional and/or executive branch decision-making on major issues; eliminate mismanagement, fraud, and abuse; or ensure that programs comply with laws and funds are legally spent, among other benefits. Since 2015, GAO has sent letters to selected agencies to highlight the importance of implementing such recommendations. For more information, contact A. Nicole Clowers at (202) 512-7114 or ClowersA@gao.gov.
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  • Economic Adjustment Assistance: Experts’ Proposed Reform Options to Better Serve Workers Experiencing Economic Disruption
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found U.S. workers have faced considerable changes in how they work and in the skills they need because of economic changes created by emerging technologies, disruptive business models, and other economic forces. Federal economic adjustment assistance (EAA) programs were established, in part, to help workers adjust to these economic disruptions. Consistent with GAO's prior work on EAA programs, experts in GAO's roundtable identified a range of challenges to using EAA programs to effectively respond to economic disruptions workers might experience. In light of these challenges, experts identified reform actions that could better serve workers (see table). The actions fell into six interrelated reform areas. Examples of Potential Reform Actions That Could Better Serve Workers Who Experience Economic Disruption, as Identified by Experts in GAO's Roundtable Reform area Examples of potential reform actions identified by experts Proactive efforts to address disruption Establish lifelong learning accounts for workers through contributions of individual workers, employers, and government agencies to fund continuous education and training opportunities. Establish a tax credit to help incentivize employers to retrain rather than lay off employees. Access to Economic Adjustment Assistance (EAA) programs Use the existing unemployment insurance system to better inform dislocated workers about the availability of and their eligibility for EAA programs. Worker training Expand the number of short-term, high-demand skills-based training opportunities. Prompt employers to develop apprenticeship programs. For example, require employers to operate apprenticeship programs of their own or pay a tax to fund the creation of apprenticeship programs. Income and other supports Create more opportunities for workers to co-enroll in training and financial safety-net programs. Develop supportive services programs for dislocated workers at the community colleges in which they are enrolled. EAA service delivery Provide dislocated workers ready access to easy-to-navigate data on high-demand skills, earnings in various occupations, and the number of available jobs in those occupations in their area. Provide community colleges with additional state or federal resources to deliver more career guidance to dislocated workers. Structure of the EAA system Invest in training infrastructure, such as publicly funded regional universities, community colleges, and other institutions. Reduce barriers to accessing existing national datasets to facilitate the evaluation of EAA program effectiveness. Source: GAO analysis of expert statements. | GAO-21-324 Note: These potential reform actions are not listed in any specific rank or order and their inclusion in this report should not be interpreted as GAO endorsing any of them. GAO did not assess how effective the potential reform actions may be or the extent to which program design modifications, legal changes, and federal financial support would be needed to implement any given reform action or combination of reform actions. Why GAO Did This Study Various economic disruptions, such as policy changes that affect global trade or the defense or energy industries and shifts in immigration, globalization, or automation, can lead to widespread job loss among workers within an entire region, industry, or occupation. GAO was asked about options for reforming the current policies and programs for helping workers weather economic disruption. This report describes a range of options, identified by experts, to reform the current policies and programs for helping workers weather economic disruption. With the assistance of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, GAO convened a 2-day, virtual roundtable in August 2020 with 12 experts, selected to represent a broad spectrum of views and expertise and a variety of professional and academic fields. They included academic researchers, program evaluators, labor economists, former federal agency officials, and state and local practitioners. GAO also reviewed relevant federal laws, prior GAO reports, and other research. For more information, contact Cindy S. Brown Barnes at (202) 512-7215 or brownbarnesc@gao.gov.
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