Briefing with Senior State Department Official on the Secretary’s Upcoming Travel to Jerusalem, Ramallah, Cairo, and Amman

Office of the Spokesperson

Via Teleconference

MODERATOR:  Good morning, everyone.  Thanks for joining this call, and especially thanks for joining it on short notice.

As you saw from the department as well as from the White House this morning, Secretary Blinken will be traveling to Jerusalem, Ramallah, Cairo, and Amman at the request of President Biden and will be departing later today.  We wanted to give you an opportunity to hear a little bit more about this travel and to ask questions.

We have with us this morning a senior State Department official to offer a bit more context and to take your questions.  This call is embargoed until the end of the call.  It is also on background.  You can attribute what you hear to a senior State Department official.  Just for the knowledge of those on this call, you’ll be hearing today from , who will be speaking and answering your questions, but again, he will be referred to as a senior State Department official, and this is embargoed until the end of the call.

So with that, I will turn it over to our speaker.  Please, go ahead.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Thank you, and good morning, everyone.  Thank you for joining.  I want to speak to you on the Secretary’s upcoming trip to Israel, the West Bank, Egypt, and Jordan, as well as take your questions after this bit, but first I want to recognize the important development of last week, the ceasefire led by Egypt.

This ceasefire was agreed to after 11 days of violence which tragically claimed the lives of innocent Palestinians and Israelis, including children, and it’s just really heartbreaking.  The United States wants to convey our deepest condolences to the families who have lost loved ones in the conflict, and our thoughts go out to those who are wounded.

We’re relieved the violence has come to an end, and I just really want to share that the U.S. worked tirelessly with all our partners in the region, including Israelis and Palestinians in public, but much, much more importantly, behind the scenes to help the ceasefire come about.  We really appreciate the important role played by Egypt, which was critical in the effort to mediate an end to the violence, and also really appreciate the roles of Jordan and Qatar and other partners who played a role here.

Look, in the wake of the ceasefire, Secretary Blinken will be traveling to Israel and the West Bank today and tomorrow, where he’ll meet with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.  He’ll then move on to Egypt and Jordan, where he’ll meet with leaders there to discuss recovery efforts and a means of working together to build better futures for people here on the ground and in the region.

Again, we’re incredibly relieved at the terrible violence which tore apart the lives of so many innocents has ended, and we’re committed to supporting all efforts to a lasting peace.  The Secretary looks forward to meeting regional leaders and discussing how the U.S. can support Israelis and Palestinians to rebuild and address the underlying causes that led to this crisis, and by advancing equal measures of freedom, security, and prosperity for Israelis and Palestinians alike in tangible ways.

With that, I’d love to take your questions.

MODERATOR:  Great, thanks very much.  We will start with the line of Nick Wadhams, please.

QUESTION:  Hey, I’m here.  Can you hear me?

MODERATOR:  Yes.  Go ahead.

QUESTION:  Thanks.  , thank you.  It’s a short trip.  Can you give us a little more detail on what the Secretary hopes to achieve from this?  The ceasefire has already been signed.  Is it the hope that he will set them on the course toward actually trying to jumpstart broader peace talks, a lasting settlement?  Or is he more just hoping to provide impetus so that this ceasefire sticks?  Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Thank you.  In the first instance, the most important thing is that the ceasefire does hold.  It’s an – extremely important that it does.  We just – we don’t want to see a return to the bloodshed that was heartbreaking during the 11-day conflict.  And we’re certainly going to look for ways to improve Israeli and Palestinian lives, and as we’ve said over and over again, advance freedom, security, and prosperity for Israelis and Palestinians alike, hopefully in tangible ways in the immediate term.

MODERATOR:  Let’s go to the line of Humeyra Pamuk.

QUESTION:  Hello?

MODERATOR:  Yes, we have you.

QUESTION:  Okay.  Thanks for this.  Just a quick follow-up on Nick and something else as well.  The Secretary and others have said the focus at the moment is to keep the ceasefire intact, and he just said that, and rebuild as well.  But just to push you a little bit on that because I really didn’t hear an answer, could this be an opportunity to lay the – at least the groundwork for future peace talks?  And if yes, what exactly will you be doing towards that?

And the second one is:  How can the U.S. guarantee aid to Gaza won’t be diverted toward replenishing the Hamas arsenal?  Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  So on the second question, we’re going to be working in partnership with the United Nations and the Palestinian Authority to kind of channel aid there in a manner that does its best to go to the people of Gaza.  I’m also sure that the Government of Egypt will have some role in that.  As we’ve seen in life, as we all know in life, there are no guarantees, but we’re going to do everything that we can to ensure that this assistance reaches the people who need it the most.

Again, regarding your question, we’re really focused primarily on ensuring that the ceasefire sticks and taking the steps to – taking tangible steps to advance the quality of people’s lives: advance their freedom, advance their security, and advance their prosperity.  We believe that in the immediate term, that’s what’s feasible and that’s what’s important.

MODERATOR:  We’ll go to Barak Ravid.

QUESTION:  (Inaudible) questions.  First, is the Secretary going to meet also Minister of Defense Gantz and head of opposition, Lapid?  It wasn’t mentioned in the statement that was released.

And second, there seems to be quite a lot of donor fatigue around the world, and many countries are saying that they’re not going to give again money to reconstruct Gaza without the broader context of a two-state solution.  How are you going to deal with this position?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  , do you want to comment anything on the schedule?

MODERATOR:  Barak, the – we’ll have more details on the schedule as we get closer to the ground, and we’ll update as we can.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Thanks, .  So look, on donor fatigue, we acknowledge that, we understand that, and it’s understandable.  There has been a cycle of violence between Israel and Hamas that’s gone on for years and it’s even over a decade old, so we understand that.  But we also understand that the international community does want to help the people of Gaza.  And so we’re just going to be focused on providing assistance – seeing that assistance is provided in a manner that’s consistent with our goals, and that’s what it’s about right now.  It’s just about improving lives today.  Over.

MODERATOR:  We’ll go to Lara Jakes.  Do we have Lara?

OPERATOR:  One moment, please.  Your line is open.

QUESTION:  Oh, hi.  Thanks.  I’m sorry if this got asked in the first question.  My phone got dropped weirdly.  But I was just curious as to how you all envision helping rebuild Gaza by working with the PA given that Hamas and the PA can’t stand each other and Hamas controls Gaza.  How is that going to work?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  That’s a great question.  And we’ve been meeting regularly and intensively with the United Nations, which is going to – we expect to lead the reconstruction efforts there.  We’ve also been meeting with the PA and together with the United Nations to look for a formula to kind of create a partnership between the United Nations and the Palestinian Authority to channel through the reconstruction assistance.  And I think we don’t talk to Hamas, obviously, but we would – we expect that they understand that if assistance is going to come in, that’s the manner it’s going to do so.  But you’re right; it presents significant challenges.  But we believe that by doing so it will get us on the pathway, we hope eventually, to a reintegration to some extent of the Palestinian Authority in Gaza, which we hope in turn can help create the conditions to move us forward to a more stable situation.

MODERATOR:  We’ll go to Nadia Bilbassy.

QUESTION:  (Inaudible) hear me?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Yes.

MODERATOR:  Yes.  Go ahead.

QUESTION:  Okay, great.  Thank you for doing this.  Thank you, – thank you, .  Sorry.  So two of my questions have been asked, but let me rephrase – so basically, can you say it’s premature to think that this trip will really ignite the peace process, and the focus mainly really is on reconstruction and on maintaining the ceasefire?  Number one.  And number two, since there is – one of my colleagues mentioned the donor fatigue, can – did you ask the Gulf states to help since they have been talking about helping Gaza, despite of Hamas being in control?  And will the money again be channeled through the PA, or the UN, or one of the states who have some influence on Hamas, which is primarily Qatar? Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Thank you, Nadia, for the question.  They’re good questions.  Look, so in terms of the funding, we’re in close communication with our partners in the Gulf about how to move forward.  Things are still pretty early.  The United Nations hasn’t even completed its back-of-the-envelope assessment yet in terms of the needs, and they’ll be going into Gaza and continue to go in to conduct these assessments in the days ahead. But we’re in touch with the Gulf, and again, we are – and other donors – and we’re trying to structure things, again, in a way that diminishes Hamas’s abilities, strengthens the people of Gaza, begins a process of hopefully reintroducing and reintegrating the Palestinian Authority into Gaza, and is in partnership with the United Nations.  We are – as I said, we are primarily focused on making sure that the ceasefire holds, on making sure that the people of Gaza get the relief that they desperately need, and that we create the conditions to hopefully advance forward.

MODERATOR:  We’ll go to Nike Ching.

QUESTION:  (Inaudible) call.  I would like to ask about the Palestinian elections.  Does the United States have a position on Palestinian elections?  Do you see the elections as a necessary step towards reviving Palestinian democratic institutions?  And is there something on the agenda when Secretary Blinken met with Abbas?  Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  So look, the administration has been consistent that the exercise of democratic elections are a matter for the Palestinian people and government to determine, not the United States Government.  So that’s – we believe that democracy is up to them and it’s up to the Palestinian people in government on how to proceed. So I’ll just leave it there.

MODERATOR:  We’ll go to Mouhamed Elahmed.

OPERATOR:  Your line is open.

QUESTION:  Hi.  Thank you for doing this.  I have three questions.  First, should we expect an extension of the Secretary trip to the Middle East that would include a possible visit to the Gulf region as well?  Also, would the U.S. consider inviting the parties to Washington, D.C. – that is, the Palestinians and the Israelis – as well as regional players and leaders to Washington, D.C., for example, to revive the peace talks?  And last question:  What is the U.S. vision to the solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict at the drop of what happened recently?  Thank you so much.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Thank you so much for those questions.  So the United States remains committed to the two-state solution.  That remains the vision of the United States, and we are not wavering from that in any way.  It’s probably premature at this time to invite the parties to Washington or anywhere else.  We are – so this will be the Secretary’s first trip to the region.  He’ll be engaging with the parties and listening to them and – again, with a focus on a cease – ensuring that the ceasefire holds and keeping – ensuring that the ceasefire holds.  I’ll just leave it there.  In terms of the expansion of the trip, , I’ll leave all those questions to you.

MODERATOR:  Sure.  Thanks for that.  At this point, we expect the Secretary will be visiting Jerusalem, Ramallah, Cairo, and Amman.  As always, if there are updates to that schedule, we will let you know.

We’ll go to the line of Andrea Mitchell.  Do we have Andrea?

OPERATOR:  I do not see Andrea’s —

MODERATOR:  It look – it may be spelled “An Mitchell” in the system.

OPERATOR:  Oh, yes.  Thank you, one moment.

QUESTION:  Hello?

MODERATOR:  Go ahead, Andrea.

QUESTION:  Hi, can you hear me?  Given the perception that Hamas has been considerably strengthened politically by this with the people of Gaza showing their muscle against Israel, do they effectively have veto power over how the aid, if it materializes, is going to be distributed despite the efforts to run it through the UN and the Palestinian Authority?  Just following up on what Lara asked, how do you circumvent the PA in this instance?

And secondly, how important is it to get some kind of commitment – if not elections, but some other kind of commitment from the Palestinian Authority given the problems that they have had in the past in terms of proper administration of aid?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Right, so thank you for those questions.  We certainly don’t see Hamas as having a veto power.  We’re going to be working with the United Nations, and the United Nations has a significant and meaningful presence on the ground there.  And we are confident that working in partnership with them and also with the involvement of the Palestinian Authority in the process, we will get the job done.

In terms of the Palestinian Authority, look, again, the aid is going to be primarily going through the United Nations with the participation of the Palestinian Authority.  And that’s going to be our – that’s going to be our focus.  So we’re not – so that’s really going to be our focus.  I’ll leave it there.

MODERATOR:  We’ll take a final question or two here.  Let’s go to the line of Karen DeYoung.

OPERATOR:  Your line is open.

QUESTION:  Yes, hi, thank you.  Given that the Israelis said that their goal during this operation was to prevent a recurrence – in other words, to completely destroy the Hamas infrastructure and armaments that let this happen – are you confident at this point that Israel has either achieved that goal, or has agreed, if not, that it – that this is over, that it will be abide by the ceasefire?  And also, does Secretary Blinken plan on addressing with the Israeli Government some of the concerns that have been expressed here, particularly in Congress, about Israeli actions and how that might influence the relationship and assistance relationship in the future?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  So what I would say is first of all, I’m not going to get into the content of the conversations that we expect to happen, but there’s no question there will be forthright and important conversations on the Secretary’s first trip out here.

In terms of the destruction of Hamas’s capabilities, my sense is – our sense is that, of course, that’s not complete.  They’re still there on the ground, they’re still a presence, and that’s why we’re restructuring the way we engage on this file in a manner that seeks to diminish and contain their efforts.  But look, we take the commitments we received from all the parties seriously, and we have every hope and expectation that the ceasefire will continue to hold, at least in the immediate term, and we’re going to do everything we can to work with our partners to ensure that it does continue to hold.

So yeah, I’ll just – I’ll leave it there.

MODERATOR:  And we’ll take a final question from Michele Kelemen.

QUESTION:  Hi, can you hear me?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Yes.

QUESTION:  Okay.  So I’m just – I’m wondering, just broadly, do you see any prospects of reviving diplomacy between Israelis and Palestinians?  And how is the street violence within Israeli cities complicating any of this?  Have you had any message to Israel about that?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  So again, our primary focus is on maintaining the ceasefire, getting the assistance to the people who need it.  In the first instance, we’ve restarted, as you’ve seen, our relationship with the Palestinian people and leadership that was missing in action for a number of years now and did nothing to restart diplomacy, so in and of itself, that is an important first step.  This is going to be an important trip for the Secretary to meet with Israeli leaders and three Arab leaders in Ramallah, Cairo, and Amman, Jordan, along with their associates.  So we are kind of reopening the chapter of engagement and working that way.

Look, in terms of the inter-communal violence and tensions in Israel, obviously, I think the world has seen that.  That is a significant concern.  And look, the United States has just gone through a period where we have kind of confronted or been forced to confront our own challenges at home.  And so we understand that other countries are also going through similar challenges.  So that will be – so I’m sure – let me just say while the focus is primarily on making sure the ceasefire holds in Gaza and bilateral relations with the governments with which we’ll be meeting, obviously, other issues like that I’m sure will come up.

MODERATOR:  Well, thanks very much to our speaker.  Thanks very much for everyone who was able to call in.  As a reminder, this call is on background to a senior State Department official.  And with that, the embargo is lifted.  Thank you all very much.

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The lack of complete and consistent data limits HHS’s and others’ ability to monitor trends in the burden of the pandemic across states and regions, make informed comparisons between such areas, and assess the impact of public health actions to prevent and mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Further, incomplete and inconsistent data have limited HHS’s and others’ ability to prioritize the allocation of health resources in specific geographic areas or among certain populations most affected by the pandemic. To improve the federal government’s response to COVID-19 and preparedness for future pandemics, GAO recommends that HHS immediately establish an expert committee comprised of knowledgeable health care professionals from the public and private sectors, academia, and nonprofits or use an existing one to systematically review and inform the alignment of ongoing data collection and reporting standards for key health indicators. HHS partially concurred with this recommendation and agreed that it should establish a dedicated working group or other mechanism with a focus on addressing COVID-19 data collection shortcomings. Drug Manufacturing Inspections FDA is responsible for overseeing the safety and effectiveness of all drugs marketed in the U.S., including those manufactured overseas, and typically conducts more than 1,600 inspections of foreign and domestic drug manufacturing establishments every year. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, since March 2020, FDA has limited domestic and foreign inspections for the safety of its employees. (See figure below.) FDA has used alternative inspection tools to maintain some oversight of drug manufacturing quality while inspections are paused, including inspections conducted by foreign regulators, requesting and reviewing records and other information, and sampling and testing. Although FDA has determined that inspections conducted by certain European regulators are equivalent to an FDA inspection, other tools provide useful information but are not equivalent to an FDA inspection. As a result, FDA could be faced with a backlog of inspections, threatening the agency’s goal to maximize inspections prioritized by its risk-based site selection model each year. GAO recommends that FDA (1) ensure that inspection plans for future fiscal years identify, analyze, and respond to the issues presented by the backlog of inspections that could jeopardize its goal of risk-driven inspections, and (2) fully assess the agency’s alternative inspection tools and consider whether these tools or others could provide the information needed to supplement regular inspection activities or help meet the agency’s drug oversight objectives when inspections are not possible in the future. FDA concurred with both recommendations. Number of FDA-Conducted Domestic and Foreign Drug Manufacturing Establishment Inspections, Fiscal Years 2019–2020, by Month Federal Contracting Federal agencies are using other transaction agreements to respond to the pandemic, which are contracting mechanisms that can enable agencies to negotiate terms and conditions specific to a project. GAO found that HHS misreports its other transaction agreements related to COVID-19 as procurement contracts, including other transaction agreements with about $1.5 billion obligated for Operation Warp Speed and other medical countermeasures. HHS’s approach is inconsistent with federal acquisition regulations and limits the public’s insight into the agency’s contract spending. To ensure consistent tracking and transparency of federal contracting activity related to the pandemic, GAO recommends that HHS accurately report data in the federal procurement database system and provide information that would allow the public to distinguish between spending on other transaction agreements and procurement contracts. HHS concurred with this recommendation. Oversight of Worker Safety and Health GAO identified concerns about federal oversight of worker safety and health amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has adapted its enforcement methods for COVID-19 to help protect agency employees from the virus and address resource constraints, such as by permitting remote inspections in place of on-site inspections of workplaces. However, gaps in OSHA’s oversight and tracking of its adapted enforcement methods prevent the agency from assessing the effectiveness of its enforcement methods during the pandemic, ensuring that its adapted enforcement methods do not miss violations, and ensuring that employers are addressing certain identified violations. To improve its oversight, GAO recommends that OSHA (1) develop a plan, with time frames, to implement the agency’s oversight processes for COVID-19-adapted enforcement methods, and (2) ensure that its data system includes comprehensive information on use of these enforcement methods to inform these processes. The agency neither agreed nor disagreed with these recommendations. Additionally, OSHA’s data do not include comprehensive information on workplace exposure to COVID-19. For example, OSHA does not receive employer reports of all work-related hospitalizations related to COVID-19, as disease symptoms do not appear within the required reporting time frames. Employers may also face challenges determining whether COVID-19 hospitalizations or fatalities are work-related because of COVID-19’s incubation period and the difficulties in tracking the source of exposure. GAO recommends that OSHA determine what additional datamay be neededfrom employers or other sources to better target the agency’s COVID-19 enforcement efforts. The agency neither agreed nor disagreed with this recommendation. Assistance for Fishery Participants The CARES Act appropriated $300 million in March 2020 to the Department of Commerce (Commerce) to assist eligible tribal, subsistence, commercial, and charter fishery participants affected by COVID-19, which may include direct relief payments. After administrative fees were assessed, $298 million of the $300 million appropriated was obligated for fishery participants.Widespread restaurant closures in the spring of 2020 led to a decrease in demand for seafood, adversely affecting the fisheries industry. As of December 4, 2020, all funds had been obligated and only about 18 percent ($53.9 million) of the CARES Act funding obligated for fishery participants had been disbursed, which is inconsistent with Office of Management and Budget guidance on the importance of agencies distributing CARES Act funds in an expedient manner. Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) officials said they expect that the vast majority of funds will be disbursed to fisheries participants by early 2021. However, the agency does not have the needed information centralized to help ensure that funds are being disbursed expeditiously and efficiently. GAO recommends that NOAA develop a mechanism to track the progress of states, tribes, and territories in meeting established timelines to disburse funds in an expedited and efficient manner. NOAA concurred with this recommendation. Program Integrity GAO continues to identify areas to improve program integrity and reduce the risk of improper payments for programs funded by the COVID-19 relief laws now that federal agencies have obligated a total of $1.9 trillion and expended $1.7 trillion of the $2.7 trillion appropriated for response and recovery efforts as of November 30, 2020. Federal relief programs remain vulnerable to significant risk of fraudulent activities because of the need to quickly provide funds and other assistance to those affected by COVID-19 and its economic effects. In this report, GAO identifies concerns about overpayments and potential fraud in the unemployment insurance (UI) system, specifically in the federally funded Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program, which provides UI benefits to individuals not otherwise eligible for these benefits, such as self-employed and certain gig economy workers. As of January 11, 2021, states that had submitted data to DOL reported more than $1.1 billion in PUA overpayments from March through December 2020. While DOL requires states to report data on PUA overpayments, as of the beginning of 2021, the agency was not tracking the amount of overpayments recovered, limiting insight into the effectiveness of states’ efforts to recoup federal funds. To better track the recovery of federal funds, GAO recommends that DOL collect data from states on the amount of PUA overpayments recovered. DOL concurred with this recommendation, and has taken the first step toward implementing it by issuing new guidance and updated instructions for states to report PUA overpayment recovery data. GAO also remains concerned about SBA’s management of internal controls and fraud risks in the Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL) program. COVID-19 relief laws made qualifying small businesses and nonprofit organizations adversely affected by COVID-19 eligible for financial assistance from the EIDL program. Some approval requirements were also relaxed, such as requiring each applicant to demonstrate that it could not obtain credit elsewhere, through December 31, 2021. As of December 31, 2020, SBA officials said they had approved about 3.7 million applications for loans related to COVID-19, totaling about $200 billion. SBA rapidly processed loans and advances to millions of small businesses affected by COVID-19. GAO’s analysis of SBA data shows that the agency approved EIDL loans and advances for potentially ineligible businesses. For example, SBA approved at least 3,000 loans totaling about $156 million to potentially ineligible businesses in industries that SBA policies state were ineligible for the EIDL program, such as insurance and real estate development, as of September 30, 2020. GAO recommends that SBA develop and implement portfolio-level data analytics across EIDL loans and advances made in response to COVID-19 as a means to detect potentially ineligible and fraudulent applications. SBA neither agreed nor disagreed with this recommendation. As of January 15, 2021, the U.S. had about 23 million cumulative reported cases of COVID-19 and more than 387,000 reported deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The country also continues to experience serious economic repercussions. Four relief laws, including the CARES Act, were enacted as of November 2020 to provide appropriations to address the public health and economic threats posed by COVID-19. As of November 30, 2020, of the $2.7 trillion appropriated by these four laws, the federal government had obligated a total of $1.9 trillion and expended $1.7 trillion of the COVID-19 relief funds, as reported by federal agencies. In December 2020, the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, provided additional federal assistance for the ongoing response and recovery. 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 and interviewed federal and state officials and stakeholders. GAO completed its audit work on January 15, 2021. GAO is making 13 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 clowersa@gao.gov.
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  • K-12 Education: U.S. Military Families Generally Have the Same Schooling Options as Other Families and Consider Multiple Factors When Selecting Schools
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    What GAO Found Traditional public schools were the most commonly available schooling option for military families near military installations, similar to schools available to U.S. families in general, according to GAO's analysis of Department of Education 2018-19 data. Over 90 percent of installations had at least one public schooling option nearby—such as a charter or magnet school—in addition to traditional public schools (see figure). Similar to U.S. schools in general, rural installations generally had fewer schooling options compared to their more highly populated urban counterparts. In addition, about one-half of the military installations GAO analyzed are in states that offer private school choice programs that provide eligible students with funding toward a non-public education. At least two of these states have private school choice programs specifically for military families. Public School Options within Average Commuting Distance of Military Installations, School Year 2018-19 Note: According to GAO's analysis of the Department of Transportation's 2017 National Household Travel Survey, the average commuting distance for rural and urban areas is 20 miles and 16 miles, respectively. For the purposes of this report, the term “military installations” refers to the 890 DOD installations and Coast Guard units included in GAO's analysis. Military families in GAO's review commonly reported considering housing options and school features when choosing schools for their children; however, they weighed these factors differently to meet their families' specific needs. For example, one reason parents said that they accepted a longer commute was to live in their preferred school district, while other parents said that they prioritized a shorter commute and increased family time over access to specific schools. Military families also reported considering academics, perceived safety, elective courses, and extracurricular activities. To inform their schooling decisions, most parents said that they rely heavily on their personal networks and social media. Why GAO Did This Study Approximately 650,000 military dependent children in the U.S. face various challenges that may affect their schooling, according to DOD. For example, these children transfer schools up to nine times, on average, before high school graduation. Military families frequently cite education issues for their children as a drawback to military service, according to DOD. GAO was asked to examine the schooling options available to school-age dependents of active-duty servicemembers. This report describes (1) available schooling options for school-age military dependent children in the U.S.; and (2) military families' views on factors they consider and resources they use when making schooling decisions. GAO analyzed data on federal education, military installation locations, and commuting patterns to examine schooling options near military installations. GAO also conducted six discussion groups with a total of 40 parents of school-age military dependent children; and interviewed officials at nine military installations that were selected to reflect a range of factors such as availability of different types of schooling options, rural or urban designation, and geographic region. In addition, GAO reviewed relevant federal laws and guidance, and interviewed officials from DOD, the Coast Guard, and representatives of national advocacy groups for military children. For more information, contact Jacqueline M. Nowicki at (617) 788-0580 or nowickij@gao.gov.
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  • Retirement Security: DOL Could Better Inform Divorcing Parties About Dividing Savings
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    Although more than one-third of adults aged 50 or older have experienced divorce, few people seek and obtain a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO), according to large plan sponsors GAO surveyed. A QDRO establishes the right of an alternate payee, such as a former spouse, to receive all or a portion of the benefits payable to a participant under a retirement plan upon separation or divorce. There are no nationally representative data on the number of QDROs, but plans and record keepers GAO interviewed and surveyed reported that few seek and obtain QDROs. For example, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation administered retirement benefits to about 1.6 million participants, and approved about 16,000 QDROs in the last 10 years. GAO's analysis of other survey data found about one-third of those who experienced a divorce from 2008 to 2016 and reported their former spouse had a retirement plan also reported losing a claim to that spouse's benefits. Many experts stated that some people—especially those with lower incomes—face challenges to successfully navigating the process for obtaining a QDRO, including complexity and cost. Individuals seeking a QDRO may be charged fees for preparation and review of draft orders before they are qualified as QDROs and, according to experts GAO interviewed, these fees vary widely. These experts cited concerns about QDRO review fees that they said in some cases were more than twice the amount of typical fees, and said they may discourage some from pursuing QDROs. Department of Labor (DOL) officials said the agency generally does not collect information on QDRO fees. Exploring ways to collect and analyze information from plans on fees could help DOL ensure costs are reasonable. Divorcing parties who pursue QDROs often had orders not qualified due to lacking basic information, according to plans and record keepers we surveyed (see figure). Plan Administrators and Record Keepers Reported Reasons for Not Qualifying a Domestic Relations Order (DRO) DOL provides some information to help divorcing parties pursue QDROs. However, many experts cited a lack of awareness about QDROs by the public and said DOL could do more to make resources available to divorcing parties. Without additional outreach by DOL, divorcing parties may spend unnecessary time and resources drafting orders that are not likely to be qualified, resulting in unnecessary expenditures of time and money. A domestic relations order (DRO) is a court-issued judgment, decree, or order that, when qualified by a retirement plan administrator, can divide certain retirement benefits in connection with separation or divorce and as such provide crucial financial security to a former spouse. DOL has authority to interpret QDRO requirements. GAO was asked to review the process for obtaining QDROs. This report examines what is known about (1) the number of QDRO recipients, (2) the fees and other expenses for processing QDROs, and (3) the reasons plans do not initially qualify DROs and the challenges experts identify regarding the QDRO process. To conduct this work, GAO analyzed available data, and a total of 14 responses from two surveys of large private sector plans and account record keepers, and interviewed 18 experts including practitioners who provide services to divorcing couples. GAO is recommending that DOL (1) explore ways to collect information on QDRO-related fees charged to participants or alternate payees, and (2) take steps to ensure information about the process for obtaining a QDRO is accessible. DOL generally agreed with our recommendations. For more information, contact Kris Nguyen at (202) 512-7215 or NguyenTT@gao.gov.
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  • Science & Tech Spotlight: Vaccine Safety
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    Why this Matters Safe vaccines are critical to fighting diseases, from polio to COVID-19. Research shows that the protection provided by U.S. licensed vaccines outweighs their potential risks. However, misinformation and unjustified safety concerns can cause people to delay or refuse vaccination, which may increase preventable deaths and prolong negative social and economic impacts. The Science What is it? A vaccine is generally considered safe when the benefits of protecting an individual from disease outweigh the risks from potential side effects (fig. 1). The most common side effects stem from the body's immune reaction and include swelling at the injection site, fever, and aches. Figure 1. Symptoms of polio and side effects of the polio vaccine. A vaccine is generally considered safe if its benefits (preventing disease) outweigh its risks (side effects). In rare cases, some vaccines may cause more severe side effects. For example, the vaccine for rotavirus—a childhood illness that can cause severe diarrhea, dehydration, and even death—can cause intestinal blockage in one in 100,000 recipients. However, the vaccine is still administered because this very rare side effect is outweighed by the vaccine's benefits: it saves lives and prevents an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 childhood hospitalizations in the U.S. each year. The two messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines authorized for COVID-19—a disease that contributed to more than 415,000 American deaths between January 2020 and January 2021—can cause severe allergic reactions. However, early safety reporting found that these reactions have been extremely rare, with only about five cases per 1 million recipients, according to data from January 2021 reports by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In general, side effects from vaccines are less acceptable to the public than side effects from treatments given to people who already have a disease. What is known? Vaccine developers assess safety from early research, through laboratory and animal testing, and even after the vaccine is in use (fig. 2). Researchers may rely on previous studies to inform future vaccine trials. For example, safety information from preclinical trials of mRNA flu vaccine candidates in 2017 allowed for the acceleration of mRNA COVID-19 vaccine development. Vaccine candidates shown to be safe in these preclinical trials can proceed to clinical trials in humans. In the U.S., clinical trials generally proceed through three phases of testing involving increasing numbers of volunteers: dozens in phase 1 to thousands in phase 3. Although data may be collected over years, most common side effects are identified in the first 2 months after vaccination in clinical trials. After reviewing safety and other data from vaccine studies, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) may license a vaccine to be marketed in the U.S. There are also programs to expedite—but not bypass—development and review processes, such as a priority review designation, which shortens FDA’s goal review time from 10 to 6 months. Safety monitoring continues after licensing. For example, health officials are required to report certain adverse events—such as heart problems—following vaccination, in order to help identify potential long-term or rare side effects that were not seen in clinical trials and may or may not be associated with the vaccine. Figure 2. Vaccine safety is assessed at every stage: development through post-licensure. Following a declared emergency, FDA can also issue emergency use authorizations (EUA) to allow temporary use of unlicensed vaccines if there is evidence that known and potential benefits of the vaccine outweigh known and potential risks, among other criteria. As of January 2021, two COVID-19 vaccines had received EUAs, after their efficacy and short-term safety were assessed through large clinical trials. However, developers must continue safety monitoring and meet other requirements if they intend to apply for FDA licensure to continue distribution of these vaccines after the emergency period has ended. What are the knowledge gaps? One knowledge gap that can remain after clinical trials is whether side effects or other adverse events may occur in certain groups. For example, because clinical trials usually exclude certain populations, such as people who are pregnant or have existing medical conditions, data on potential adverse events related to specific populations may not be understood until vaccines are widely administered. In addition, it can be difficult to determine the safety of new vaccines if outbreaks end suddenly. For example, vaccine safety studies were hindered during the 2014-2015 Ebola epidemic when a large increase in the number of cases was followed by a sharp decrease. This disrupted the clinical trials of Ebola vaccine candidates, because the trials require many infected and non-infected people. Furthermore, a lack of understanding and/or misinformation about the steps taken to ensure the safety of vaccines hinders accurate public knowledge about safety concerns, which may cause people to delay or refuse vaccination. This resulting hesitancy may, in turn, increase deaths, social harm, and economic damage. Opportunities Continuing and, where necessary, improving existing vaccine safety practices offers the following opportunities to society: Herd immunity. Widespread immunity in a population, acquired in large part through safe and effective vaccines, can slow the spread of infection and protect those most vulnerable. Health care improvements. Vaccinations can reduce the burden on the health care system by reducing severe symptoms that require individuals to seek treatment. Eradication. Safe vaccination programs, such as those combatting smallpox, may eliminate diseases to the point where transmission no longer occurs. Challenges There are a number of challenges to ensuring safe vaccines: Public confidence. Vaccine hesitancy, in part due to misinformation or historic unethical human experimentation, decreases participation in clinical trials, impeding identification of side effects across individuals with different racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Mutating viruses. Some viruses, such as those that cause the flu or COVID-19, may mutate rapidly and thus may require new or updated vaccines, for which ongoing safety monitoring is important. Long-term and rare effects. Exceedingly rare or long-term effects may not be identified until after vaccines have been widely administered. Further study is needed to detect any such effects and confirm they are truly associated with the vaccine. Policy Context & Questions What steps can policymakers take to improve public trust and understanding of the process of assessing vaccine safety? How can policymakers convey the social importance of vaccines to protect the general public and those who are most vulnerable? How can policymakers leverage available resources to support ongoing vaccine development and post-licensure safety monitoring? For more information, contact Karen Howard at (202) 512-6888 or HowardK@gao.gov.
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  • 2021 Annual Report: New Opportunities to Reduce Fragmentation, Overlap, and Duplication and Achieve Billions in Financial Benefits
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found GAO identified 112 new actions for Congress or executive branch agencies to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of government. For example: The Office of Management and Budget should improve how agencies buy common goods and services—such as medical supplies and computers—by addressing data management challenges and establishing performance metrics to help save the federal government billions of dollars over the next 5 years, as well as potentially eliminate duplicative contracts. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) could enhance third-party information reporting to increase compliance with tax laws and raise revenue. GAO has also previously suggested (1) providing IRS with authority—with appropriate safeguards—to correct math errors and to correct errors in cases where information provided by the taxpayer does not match information in government databases and (2) establishing requirements for paid tax return preparers to help improve the accuracy of tax returns they prepare. These actions could help reduce the substantial tax gap and increase revenues. The National Nuclear Security Administration could implement cost savings programs to operate more effectively at its nuclear laboratory and production sites to potentially save hundreds of millions of dollars over approximately a 5-year period. The Department of Defense's payments to privatized housing projects have lessened the financial effects of the housing allowance rate reductions for these projects, but revising the calculation for these payments could potentially result in millions of dollars of savings. Federal agencies could improve coordination of fragmented cybersecurity requirements and related assessment programs for state agencies, potentially minimizing the burden on states and saving millions of dollars in associated federal and state costs. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) could improve coordination of its infectious disease modeling efforts to better identify any duplication and overlap among agencies, which could help them to better plan for and more efficiently respond to disease outbreaks. From 2011 to 2021, GAO has identified more than 1,100 actions to reduce costs, increase revenues, and improve agencies' operating effectiveness. GAO's last report in May 2020 said progress made in addressing many of the actions identified from 2011 to 2019 had resulted in approximately $429 billion in financial benefits, including $393 billion that accrued through 2019 and $36 billion that was projected to accrue in future years. Since May 2020, at least tens of billions of dollars in additional financial benefits have been achieved. For example, based on GAO's updates for spring 2021, HHS's changes to spending limit determinations for Medicaid demonstration waivers further reduced federal spending by about $30 billion in 2019. GAO estimates that tens of billions of additional dollars could be saved should Congress and executive branch agencies fully address open actions, including those that have potential financial benefits of $1 billion or more. Why GAO Did This Study The federal government has made an unprecedented financial response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Once the pandemic recedes and the economy substantially recovers, Congress and the administration will need to develop and swiftly implement an approach to place the government on a sustainable long-term fiscal path. In the short term, opportunities exist for achieving billions of dollars in financial savings and improving the efficiency and effectiveness of a wide range of federal programs in other areas. GAO has responded with annual reports to a statutory provision for it to identify and report on federal programs, agencies, offices, and initiatives—either within departments or government-wide—that have duplicative goals or activities. GAO also identifies areas that are fragmented or overlapping, as well as additional opportunities to achieve cost savings or enhance revenue collection. This report discusses the new areas identified in GAO's 2021 annual report—the 11th in this series—and examples of open actions recommended to Congress or executive branch agencies with potential financial benefits of $1 billion or more. To identify what actions exist to address these issues, GAO reviewed and updated select prior work, including matters for congressional consideration and recommendations for executive action. For more information, contact Jessica Lucas-Judy at (202) 512-6806 or lucasjudyj@gao.gov or Michelle Sager at (202) 512-6806 or sagerm@gao.gov.
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  • Fair Labor Standards Act: Tracking Additional Complaint Data Could Improve DOL’s Enforcement
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    Over the past 10 years, the number of Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) minimum wage and overtime cases has generally ranged between 23,000 and 30,000 each year. The compliance actions the Department of Labor's (DOL) Wage and Hour Division (WHD) used to address these cases primarily involved either on-site investigations or conciliations that seek a resolution between the employer and the worker by phone. Back wages due to workers for FLSA minimum wage and overtime violations increased from $129 million in fiscal year 2010 to $226 million in fiscal year 2019. Although the number of WHD investigators decreased by 25 percent from 2010 to 2019, WHD maintained its casework by using procedural flexibilities, such as not investigating low-priority complaints and by distributing work across offices to balance workloads. From fiscal years 2014 through 2019, most of WHD's FLSA compliance actions were targeted at priority industries—those WHD identified as low-wage, high violation industries that employ workers who are unlikely to file wage or overtime complaints, such as food services. In 2011, WHD developed a list of 20 priority industries, and encouraged its regional and district offices to focus on these industries by setting and monitoring performance goals as part of its annual enforcement planning process. The percentage of FLSA compliance actions involving the priority industries increased from 75 to 80 percent from fiscal years 2014 through 2019, according to DOL data. WHD uses several strategies, including supervisory reviews, to address FLSA complaints consistently, but does not track uniform data needed to ensure that the reasons complaints are filed with no WHD compliance action are applied consistently. WHD may file complaints without completing a compliance action because they are not within WHD's jurisdiction or for other reasons, such as that they are determined to be low-priority. GAO found that WHD filed about 20 percent of FLSA complaints with no compliance action from fiscal years 2014-2019 and the percent varied considerably (from 4 to 46 percent) among district offices (see figure). WHD lacks uniform data on the reasons complaints are filed with no compliance action at intake or the reasons cases are dropped after initial acceptance because there is no data field in WHD's enforcement database that can be used to systematically aggregate that information. Absent this data, WHD is less able to ensure that a consistent process is applied to complaints. Percentage of Fair Labor Standards Act Complaints Filed with No Compliance Action by WHD District Offices, Fiscal Years 2014-2019 Note: WHD filed about 20 percent of FLSA complaints with no compliance action from fiscal years 2014-2019, and the percent varied considerably among its district offices. The FLSA sets federal minimum wage and overtime pay requirements for millions of U.S. workers. WHD may investigate worker complaints of FLSA violations or initiate investigations in industries it prioritizes for enforcement. GAO was asked to review WHD compliance actions. This report examines (1) trends in WHD's FLSA minimum wage and overtime cases, (2) the extent to which WHD's FLSA compliance actions targeted priority industries, and (3) the extent to which WHD's reported efforts and data indicate that WHD applied a consistent process to FLSA complaints. GAO analyzed WHD data on FLSA cases for fiscal years 2010 through 2019, the last full fiscal year of data available when GAO conducted its analysis. GAO also conducted more in-depth reviews of recent efforts (fiscal years 2014-2019). GAO interviewed officials from WHD's national office, five regional offices, and five of WHD's 54 district offices with the largest share of FLSA cases in their regions. GAO also interviewed external stakeholders, including state agencies and organizations that represent workers and employers. GAO recommends DOL's WHD develop a method for systematically aggregating and reviewing data on the reasons complaints are filed with no compliance action or cases are dropped. DOL agreed with GAO's recommendation and stated it would take action to address it. For more information, contact Cindy Brown Barnes at (202) 512-7215 or brownbarnesc@gao.gov.
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