Department Press Briefing – April 30, 2021

Jalina Porter, Principal Deputy Spokesperson

2:00 p.m. EDT

(ON THE RECORD/OFF-CAMERA UNLESS OTHERWISE NOTED)

MS PORTER:  Good afternoon everyone, and thank you for joining this afternoon’s briefing.  I have one update at the top, and then we’ll start taking your questions.

Today, Secretary Blinken announced his travel to London, UK and Kyiv, Ukraine.  In London, May 3rd to 5th, the Secretary will attend the G7 Foreign and Development Ministers’ Meeting.  As the Secretary has said, wherever the rules for international security and the global economy are being written, America will be there to represent the interests of the American people.  The G7 is a crucial forum for that effort.

The Secretary is looking forward to discussing the democratic values that we share with our G7 partners and addressing key geopolitical issues we face as we build back better from this pandemic.  Tackling the COVID-19 and climate crisis will feature prominently on the agenda as well as advancing economic growth, human rights, food security, gender equality, and women’s and girls’ empowerment.

While in London, the Secretary will meet with Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Foreign Secretary Raab to discuss shared U.S.-UK priorities on various global issues and affirm the strong alliance between our countries.

The Secretary will then travel to Kyiv, May 5th through 6th.  There he’ll meet with President Zelenskyy and Foreign Minister Kuleba as well as other officials and representatives of Ukrainian civil society.  He will reaffirm unwavering U.S. support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russia’s ongoing aggression.  He will also encourage continued progress on Ukraine’s institutional reform and anti-corruption agenda, which is key to securing Ukraine’s democratic institutions, economic prosperity, and Euro-Atlantic future.

Now with that, I’ll give it a few minutes for those who are still calling in, and then we’ll begin to take your questions.

Let’s go to the line of Casey O’Neill.

QUESTION:  Thanks, Jalina.  Happy Friday, and thanks so much for doing this.  Two questions for you.  First on personnel, I know last night Ambassador Nuland was confirmed by the Senate to serve as Under Secretary for Political Affairs.  Just curious as to when she’s starting.  Was today her first day?  I know that on the public schedule it still indicated that Under Secretary Hale was on the job.

And then secondly on COVID restrictions and the travel of State Department personnel, I know that of course you have announced Secretary Blinken’s travel to Ukraine and the UK.  I’m just wondering – of course, he recently virtually traveled to the African continent.  I’m just wondering what kind of message the Department is sending when the Secretary is virtually traveling some places and others he’s actually physically traveling.  Is there a matrix or guidelines that you all are using to determine when the Secretary is virtually traveling?  I’m just kind of looking for some insight into how those decisions are made.  Thanks.

MS PORTER:  Thank you for your question.  I will start with your second question first.  So, yes, as you noted, the Secretary has not only done virtual travel to Africa, but he’s done several virtual visits as well as some in-person visits.  And we’ll continue to underscore that the health and safety of State Department personnel – obviously with Secretary Blinken included in that – is our highest priority.  And when he’s traveling on these trips and when staff are accommodating him as well as members of the press corps, we are following stringent COVID protocols.

But when it comes to all of our visits, we consider that an accomplishment to everything we’re doing to advance diplomacy.  And everything that we’ve done in the first 100 days, including our climate summit that we participated in as well.  So I wouldn’t say that any one is more important than the other, but are continuing to make sure that when we do our visits, whether they’re in-person, that we are abiding by COVID restrictions, but we’re also making sure that we are engaging diplomatically virtually as well to make sure that we are upholding safety and security.

And when it comes to your question on Ambassador Nuland, we don’t have any other personnel announcements.  Other than that, we are very excited for her to join us here at the State Department, but we don’t have anything to announce as far as her first day on the job.

Let’s go to the line of Jiha Ham.

QUESTION:  Hi.  Can you hear me?

MS PORTER:  Yes, I can hear you.

QUESTION:  Hi, Jalina.  My question is about the policy review on North Korea.  It looks like you have completed the review.  Could you tell us whether you are going to formally announce and share the details of this new policy?  Also, about a month ago, we learned that the U.S. reached out to the North Korean Government through several channels in February.  I’m wondering if you have tried to reach out again and share this new policy.  Thank you.

MS PORTER:  Thanks for your question.  When it comes to specifics of the policy, I won’t be previewing any of that from here, but what I will say is that – to confirm that we have completed our DPRK policy review which was thorough, rigorous, and inclusive as well.  And we have consulted closely with not only outside experts, but our predecessors from several previous administrations.  And our way forward simply draws from their lessons learned and shared.  I’ll just continue to underscore that our ultimate goal remains clear, and that is complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

Go to the line of Simon Ateba.

QUESTION:  Simon Ateba for Today’s News Africa in Washington, D.C.  Thank you for taking my question.  And it’s almost a follow-up to the previous question, if Africa is really a priority for the Biden administration.  We know that the Secretary of State just had a virtual trip to Africa, and Africa has the lowest infection and dead – COVID-19 dead.  So I was wondering why he chose to travel virtually in Africa, and then travel in person to Europe.  Thank you.

MS PORTER:  Thank you for your question.  I’d love to reiterate that Africa is absolutely a priority the Biden administration and certainly a priority for Secretary Blinken.  And as you noted well, he met with President Kenyatta as well as President Buhari, and he also wanted to make sure that he met with Africa’s youth from the Young African Leaders Initiative across the continent.  And obviously, this demographic certainly represents a cohort of Africa’s population, a large cohort that is, and it’s a very dynamic population as well.  And again, as we’ve engaged early on in this administration with our African partners, you also probably remember that President Biden has addressed on occasion the African Union Summit as well.

So we’re continuing to make sure that we engage – not only engage regularly and openly, but consistently with our partners, because we do have shared interests and shared values.  And of course, again, I’ll continue to underscore that Africa is certainly a priority for the Biden administration.

Let’s go to the line of Jennifer Hansler.

QUESTION:  Hi Jalina, thanks for doing this.  On India, I was wondering if you had any additional details on the authorized departure for family members of the mission there, and whether the State Department will be providing charters or if they’re expected to rely on commercial options.  Is the State Department considering chartering any flights for American citizens who are looking to leave that country?  Thank you.

MS PORTER:  Thanks, Jen.  I don’t have anything to announce or update at this time when it comes to authorized departures in India.

Let’s go to the line of Rosiland Jordan, please.

QUESTION:  Hi, Jalina.  Happy Friday.  First, a housekeeping question:  Will there be any briefings here in Washington next week, either in person or on the phone?  Then a policy question:  Is there a department reaction to the decision to postpone the elections in the Palestinian territories?  Thanks.

MS PORTER:  Well, I’ll just reach your second question.  Thank you, Rosiland.  As we’ve said before, obviously, the exercise of democratic elections matter for the Palestinian people, and it’s a matter for them to determine as well as their leadership to determine as well.  But we also encourage all parties to remain calm in the process.

As far as just housekeeping, we definitely regularly host our Friday briefings telephonically, so we’ll have that.  And we will brief next week telephonically where I’ll be happy to let you know offline what days those will be as well.

Let’s go to the line of Said Arikat.

QUESTION:  Jalina, thank you for taking my question.  Can you hear me?  Hello?

MS PORTER:  Yes, I can hear you.

QUESTION:  Yeah.  Just to follow up on Rosiland – on Ros’ question on the election.  Now, look, Palestinian Jerusalemites to vote is something that the United States basically ironed out and helped work out – the Clinton administration, then the Bush administration.  So why can’t you call on the Israelis to allow Palestinian Jerusalemites to vote, as the Bush administration had and so on, as the European Union?  Because that definitely will be (inaudible).  Thank you.

MS PORTER:  Thank you, Said.  Well, I certainly don’t want to comment on the posture of previous administrations and their decisions, but I’d be happy to repeat again that the democratic process and the composition of the democratic elections – excuse me – is a matter for the Palestinian people, and it’s a matter of their leadership to determine.

Let’s go to the line of Mouhamed Elahmed.

OPERATOR:  Mouhamed, your line is open.  Please, go ahead.

QUESTION:  Yes, hi.  Thanks, Jalina.  I have a question about Afghanistan.  The Taliban spokesperson posted a Tweet a couple of minutes ago in which he said that a delegation of Taliban participated in expanded Troika meeting in Doha, and that the meeting was attended by the Special Representative for Afghanistan, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, as well as officials from Russia, China, and Pakistan.  My question is:  Do you have any readout that you could share about this meeting?  And how would this meeting add to the efforts for the preparation of the Istanbul Conference?

And also on Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, how long does he plan to stay in the region, whether he’s going to – is he going to stay in the region till the upcoming Istanbul conference?  Thank you so much.

MS PORTER:  Thank you for your questions.  As far as the meeting, we don’t have a readout for that at this time.  But when it comes to the Istanbul conference, of course, we’ve seen the announcement that the conference is being postponed, and of course, we’re looking forward to a later date.  But as far as the specific details, I would just have to refer you to the organizers of the conference – obviously, the governments of Turkey and Qatar and the UN – for any additional details.

Let’s go to the line of Henry Kohn.

QUESTION:  Hi, this is Henry Kohn of Today News Africa.  Thank you for taking my question.  So subsequent to the Secretary’s calls with the foreign ministers of Morocco and Algeria, I’d like to ask how – what is the U.S.’s approach to promoting security and economic prosperity in North Africa, and is this, in the Biden administration’s view, different than the previous administration?

And then secondly, in the readout of the Secretary’s call with the Moroccan foreign minister, it says that the Secretary encouraged Morocco to reaffirm its commitment to protecting and promoting human rights.  And my question is: What specifically in terms of human rights in Morocco is the U.S. concerned about, and was Western Sahara brought up in this conversation?  Thank you.

MS PORTER:  So when it comes to Western Sahara, we are consulting privately with parties on how to best halt the violence there.  There is nothing specific to read out and what you just mentioned, but we would also talk about having the goal to achieve a lasting settlement.  Anything beyond that, I don’t have anything further to announce at this time.

Let’s go to the line of Luis Rojas.

QUESTION:  Hi, Jalina.  Can you hear me?

MS PORTER:  Yes, I can hear you.

QUESTION:  Thank you, thank you, and Happy Friday.  Next Monday is World Press Freedom Day.  Secretary Blinken has spoken of the United States working to expand access to information for the people of Venezuela, so community journalist projects.  Can you explain what is this project on, what is the point of priority of the United States in these points?

Second, (inaudible) in hunger strike ask for Cuba Government to respect his rights and return his (inaudible).  Any comment from the United States Government on this situation?  Thank you.

Hello?

MS PORTER:  Hi.  Yes, some of your question cut out, but I think you started the question by touching on World Press Freedom Day.  Of course, the United States supports a free and open press and democratic society, that we know that when journalists and the media are able to do their job, they are able to not only inform the public, but they’re able to expose corruption and human rights abuses.  And of course, the United States stands firm in holding human rights abusers accountable so that whether that’s in Venezuela or whether that’s anywhere else in the world.

But I think specifically when it comes to Venezuela, we’ll just reiterate that we stand with the people of Venezuela as they continue to struggle for democracy and rule of law.  And we also are committed to working with our Venezuelan as well as international partners to foster an environment where all Venezuelans can have a peaceful course during their current crisis.

Let’s go to the line of Tejinder Singh..

OPERATOR:  Tejinder Singh, your line is open.  Please, go ahead.

QUESTION:  Thank you.  I have just two short questions.  One is:  We are sending these planeloads of material to India.  But our journalist in Delhi is reporting that even after trying for two days he’s been unable to find out who is taking away the oxygen concentration, medicines, or how much is arriving.  There’s no website or transparent system where people can apply to get this.  So this accountability for the U.S. taxpayers’ money being sent, is there anything being done to check on how it is being distributed, the aid that we are sending?

MS PORTER:  Well, we certainly want to assure our partners in India that not only are we committed to supporting them in this time of crisis, but help is there right now and additional help is on the way, and obviously that would include an array of supplies, including our oxygen – oxygen cylinders, regulators, and pulse oximeters, as well as N95 masks to make sure that we’re protecting India’s frontline health care workers.

As far as a specific website when it comes to tracking, we have nothing to read out or announce at this time.  But rest assured that the United States is committed to making sure that our partners in India are taken care of in this crisis.

We’ll take one last question from Rich Edson.

QUESTION:  Real quick.  Just wondering if you can confirm or comment this report that just came out from CNN that on the advice of the Centers for Disease Control, the Biden administration is going to restrict travel from India starting May 4th, which would be next week.  Thank you.

MS PORTER:  Thanks for the question, Rich.  We have nothing to announce on that.  And I’d have to refer you to the White House for any other questions.

Thank you all for joining this afternoon.  That concludes this afternoon’s briefing.

(The briefing was concluded at 2:23 p.m.)

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    The services preposition combat and support assets ashore and afloat worldwide, including in the Indo-Pacific region. Prepositioned assets include combat vehicles, equipment sets for engineering and construction, and protective gear for chemical or biological attacks. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Department of Defense (DOD) used prepositioned medical assets for personnel in Guam, South Korea, and Germany. All of the services have reported some shortfalls in their prepositioned assets from 2015 through 2019—including mortars, combat vehicles, and medical equipment. In the Indo-Pacific region, for example, the Army reported shortfalls in equipment to construct bridges over difficult terrain. All services also cited challenges, such as insufficient storage space, storage facilities located far away from intended points of use, and the perishability of some assets. In some cases, the services are taking actions to address these shortfalls and challenges. In others, the services are accepting risk because, according to officials, not all shortfalls and challenges can be fully addressed. Sailors and Marines Offload Assets from a Prepositioning Ship during the COVID-19 Response in Guam DOD has taken steps to implement a joint oversight framework but does not have a complete view of the services' prepositioning programs. DOD revised two guidance documents—an instruction in 2019 and a strategic implementation plan in 2020—to establish a joint oversight framework. However, DOD has focused much of its joint efforts to date on preparing a required annual report to Congress on the status of the services' prepositioning programs. While the report provides some useful information, GAO found inaccurate and inconsistent information in multiple annual reports, which hinder their utility. DOD does not have a reporting mechanism or information-collection tool to develop a complete picture of the services' prepositioning programs. The current annual reporting requirement expires in 2021, which provides DOD with an opportunity to create a new reporting mechanism, or modify existing mechanisms or tools, to enable a complete picture of the services' prepositioning programs. By doing so, DOD could better identify gaps or redundancies in the services' programs, make more informed decisions to mitigate asset shortfalls and challenges, reduce potential duplication and fragmentation, and improve its joint oversight. The U.S. military services preposition critical assets at strategic locations around the world for access during the initial phases of an operation. DOD uses these prepositioned assets for combat, support to allies, and disaster and humanitarian assistance. For many years, GAO has identified weaknesses in DOD's efforts to establish a joint oversight framework to guide its ability to assess the services' prepositioning programs. This has led to fragmentation and the potential for duplication. Senate Report 116-48 included a provision for GAO to evaluate the services' prepositioning programs and associated challenges. This report (1) describes the types of assets the services preposition worldwide, as well as asset shortfalls and challenges the services have identified, and (2) assesses the extent to which DOD has made progress in implementing a joint oversight framework for the services' programs. To conduct this work, GAO reviewed DOD prepositioning documents and interviewed DOD and State Department officials from over 20 offices. This is a public version of a sensitive report that GAO issued in December 2020. Information that DOD deemed sensitive has been omitted. GAO recommends that DOD develop a reporting mechanism or tool to gather complete information about the military services' prepositioning programs for joint oversight and to reduce duplication and fragmentation. DOD concurred with the recommendation. For more information, contact Cary B. Russell at (202) 512-5431 or russellc@gao.gov.
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  • Former Construction Executive Sentenced to 46 Months in Prison for Tax Evasion and Bribery Scheme
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    A New York construction executive was sentenced today in Manhattan federal court to 46 months in prison for evading taxes on more than $1.4 million in bribes he received from building subcontractors.
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  • Justice Department Applauds the Passage and Enactment of the Servicemembers and Veterans Initiative Act of 2020
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  • Social Security Disability: Information on Wait Times, Bankruptcies, and Deaths among Applicants Who Appealed Benefit Denials
    In U.S GAO News
    GAO found that most applicants for disability benefits who appealed the Social Security Administration's (SSA) initial disability determination from fiscal years 2008 through 2019 waited more than 1 year for a final decision on their claim. Median wait times reached 839 days for claims filed in fiscal year 2015, following an increase of applications during the Great Recession. Wait times have decreased since then as SSA made substantial progress in reducing the wait for a hearing before an administrative law judge prior to the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. Individuals who filed appeals of disability benefits decisions were older and had less education than the overall population of working-age adults. Among these disability applicants, wait times for a final decision did not significantly vary by age, sex, or education levels. GAO's analysis of available data from SSA and the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AOUSC) found that from fiscal years 2014 through 2019, about 48,000 individuals filed for bankruptcy while awaiting a final decision on their disability appeals. This represents about 1.3 percent of the approximately 3.6 million disability applicants who filed appeals during those years. The applicants who filed for bankruptcy while awaiting a disability appeals decision were disproportionately female, older, and had more than a high school education as compared to the total population of disability applicants who filed appeals. Bankruptcies among individuals who were awaiting decisions about disability appeals may have been unrelated to the applicant's claimed disability. GAO's analysis of SSA disability administrative data and death data found that of the approximately 9 million disability applicants who filed an appeal from fiscal year 2008 through 2019, 109,725 died prior to receiving a final decision on their appeal. This represents about 1.2 percent of the total number of disability applicants who filed an appeal during those years. The annual death rate of applicants awaiting a final disability decision has increased in recent years. From fiscal years 2011 through 2018, the annual death rate for applicants pursuing appeals increased from 0.52 percent to 0.72 percent. Applicants who filed their initial disability claim during years of peak wait times and appealed their initial decision died at a higher rate while awaiting a final decision than applicants who filed their initial claim in years with shorter wait times. Disability applicants awaiting a final decision about their appeal who were male died at higher rates than applicants who were female and those who were older died at higher rates than those who were younger. Death rates were largely similar across reported education levels. Deaths among individuals who were awaiting decisions about disability appeals may have been unrelated to the applicant's claimed disability. The Social Security Administration (SSA) manages two large disability benefit programs–Disability Insurance (DI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). As of December 2019, these programs provided benefits to approximately 12.3 million adults living with disabilities and their eligible dependents. A disability applicant who is dissatisfied with SSA's initial disability determination can appeal the decision to multiple escalating levels of review. From fiscal years 2008 through 2019, SSA received approximately 9 million appeals of initial DI or SSI decisions. GAO has previously reported that applicants who appeal a benefits denial can potentially wait years to receive a final decision, during which time an applicant's health or financial situation could deteriorate. Given the heightened risk of worsening medical and financial conditions for disability applicants, GAO was asked to examine the incidence of such events while applicants await a final decision on their disability claim. This report examines the status of disability applicants while they awaited a final benefits decision including 1) their total wait times across all levels of disability appeals within SSA, 2) their incidence of bankruptcy, and 3) their incidence of death. For wait times, bankruptcies, and deaths, GAO also examined variations across certain demographic characteristics of applicants. GAO obtained administrative data from SSA for all adult disability applicants from fiscal years 2008 through 2019 who filed an appeal to their initial disability determination. GAO used these data to calculate wait times across appeals levels, rates of approvals and denials, and appeals caseloads, and examined changes in these three areas over time. To describe the incidence of bankruptcy among individuals awaiting a disability appeals decision, GAO matched SSA disability data to AOUSC bankruptcy data for fiscal years 2014 through 2019. To describe the incidence of death among individuals awaiting a disability appeals decision, GAO matched the disability data to SSA's Death Master File. For all of these analyses, GAO also examined variations across demographic characteristics of applicants, including age, sex, and reported education level. GAO also reviewed relevant policies, federal laws and regulations, and agency publications, and interviewed agency officials. For more information, contact Elizabeth Curda at (202) 512-7215 or CurdaE@gao.gov.
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  • Former Attorney for Municipalities in Puerto Rico Sentenced for Bribery
    In Crime News
    A former attorney for three municipalities in Puerto Rico was sentenced today to 10 years in prison after he was convicted of four counts of bribery with respect to programs receiving federal funds.
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    In Crime News
    A New York federal court unsealed an indictment today charging four Iranian nationals with conspiracies related to kidnapping, sanctions violations, bank and wire fraud, and money laundering. A co-conspirator and California resident, also of Iran, faces additional structuring charges.
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  • CEO of Medical Device Company Charged in COVID-19 Related Securities Fraud Scheme
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    The chief executive officer (CEO) of a California-based medical device company was indicted by a federal grand jury in connection with an alleged scheme to defraud investors by making false and misleading statements about the purported development of a new COVID-19 test, leading to millions of dollars in investor losses.
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    In Crime News
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  • Tax Cuts and Jobs Act: Future Rulemaking Should Provide Greater Detail on Paperwork Burden and Economic Effects of International Business Provisions
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found GAO's interviews with officials representing eight selected U.S.-based companies revealed considerable uncertainty in how the international business provisions of Public Law 115-97—commonly known as the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 (TCJA)—may be affecting business planning decisions. Some companies reported making specific changes, such as moving intellectual property back to the U.S. in response to a new deduction for income earned from certain foreign-derived sales of property or services attributed to assets located in the U.S. Preliminary studies on another provision taxing net income earned by foreign subsidiaries exceeding a specified threshold of certain assets hypothesized that this provision could encourage moving tangible property outside the U.S. Other business representatives emphasized the importance of nontax factors in business planning decisions, such as entering foreign markets where executives believe potential customers may be located. The Department of the Treasury (Treasury) and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) proposed eight regulations and finalized six of them to implement four international provisions of TCJA between December 2017 and October 2020 (the most current information available at the time of GAO's review) and used guidance to supplement the regulations. The agency generally complied with legal requirements for issuing regulations and offered public comment opportunities for some guidance. However, Treasury and IRS did not fully address expectations set in government-wide guidance related to Paperwork Reduction Act (PRA) burden estimates, economic analysis requirements for regulations, and public comment on significant guidance: IRS generally did not provide specific estimates of the incremental paperwork burden of TCJA's international regulations and instead estimated the total burden for all business tax forms. The Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs' PRA guide says agencies should estimate the time and money required for an information collection. GAO's interviews with representatives of selected companies show why it is important for IRS to consider burden because representatives reported challenges, such as gathering required information from foreign subsidiaries. Anticipated economic benefits and costs of Treasury's and IRS's regulations were generally not quantified. An executive order requires agencies to provide such information to the extent feasible for regulations with the largest anticipated economic effects. As a result, Treasury and IRS made important decisions about regulations, such as whether to allow foreign military sales to be eligible for a U.S. deduction, without more specific information about the potential economic effects. IRS did not provide an opportunity for public comment before issuing revenue procedures related to TCJA's international provisions. The Office of Management and Budget identified ensuring public comment opportunities for significant guidance when appropriate as a leading practice that agencies should follow. The President recently directed a government-wide review of agency guidance processes. Why GAO Did This Study TCJA made sweeping changes to taxing U.S. corporations' international activities: (1) a transition tax on untaxed overseas earnings of foreign subsidiaries that accrued prior to 2017; (2) a tax on the net income earned by foreign subsidiaries exceeding a specified threshold of certain assets; (3) a deduction for income from certain foreign-derived sales of property or services exceeding a specified threshold of certain assets; and (4) a tax on certain payments made to a related foreign party referred to as base erosion payments. GAO was asked to review IRS's implementation of TCJA and early effects of the law. This report: (1) describes how TCJA's international provisions may be affecting U.S.-based corporations' international business activities; and (2) assesses IRS's and Treasury's development of relevant regulations and guidance to implement the provisions. GAO interviewed representatives from eight companies' tax departments randomly selected from among the 100 largest U.S.-based companies and compared relevant regulations and guidance against procedural requirements.
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  • Former Medical Director of Suboxone Manufacturer Indivior Sentenced in Connection with Drug Safety Claims
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    Timothy Baxter, the former medical director of Indivior PLC, was sentenced today in federal court in Abingdon, Virginia, to six months of home detention and 100 hours of community service in connection with the company’s marketing of an opioid drug.
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  • Firefighting Foam Chemicals: DOD Is Investigating PFAS and Responding to Contamination, but Should Report More Cost Information
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found The Department of Defense (DOD) is early in the environmental restoration process at or near the 687 installations with a known or suspected release of certain per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)—heat-resistant chemicals found in certain firefighting foams that can contaminate drinking water (see fig.). DOD Installations in the Environmental Restoration Process with a Known or Suspected PFAS Release, as of Fiscal Year 2020 aAccording to DOD officials, in fiscal year 2021 the Air Force changed its definition for when this phase is considered complete, resulting in a lower number of DOD installations (129 installations) that had completed this phase as of March 2021. DOD has taken actions (e.g., providing bottled water, installing water treatment systems) to address PFAS in drinking water at or near its installations when PFAS amounts exceeded federal health advisory levels. DOD generally has not taken actions to address PFAS in drinking water where PFAS amounts were below the federal advisory levels, but above state PFAS standards. DOD estimates that its future PFAS investigation and cleanup costs will total more than $2.1 billion beginning in fiscal year 2021, which is in addition to $1.1 billion in actual PFAS costs incurred through fiscal year 2020. These costs will likely increase significantly, because DOD is still in the early phases of its PFAS investigation. DOD officials also cited regulatory uncertainty at the federal and state levels as a significant challenge in estimating PFAS environmental restoration costs. However, DOD has not reported future PFAS cost estimates, or the scope and limitations of those estimates, in its annual environmental reports to Congress. By reporting this information to Congress, DOD would ensure that Congress has increased visibility into the significant costs and efforts associated with PFAS investigation and cleanup at or near military installations. As of March 2021, DOD had identified six potential PFAS-free foam candidates; however, PFAS-free foams have been unable to fully meet DOD's current performance requirements. By law, DOD must ensure that a PFAS-free firefighting alternative is available for use at its installations by October 2023. DOD is funding research to address challenges associated with identifying PFAS-free alternatives. DOD plans to continue using PFAS-containing foam aboard ships at sea—as allowed for by the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020—until a PFAS-free alternative can meet existing requirements. Why GAO Did This Study DOD has long used PFAS-containing firefighting foam to extinguish fires quickly and keep them from reigniting. PFAS can migrate into the environment (e.g., drinking water) and may have adverse effects on human health. The federal government has issued two nonenforceable advisories but has not yet regulated PFAS in drinking water; some states have adopted PFAS regulations. Conference Report 116-333, accompanying the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020, included a provision for GAO to review DOD's response to PFAS contamination. This report (1) describes DOD's progress in the investigation and cleanup of PFAS at its installations, and DOD's actions to address PFAS in drinking water; (2) describes DOD's actual and estimated costs for PFAS investigation and cleanup, and evaluates the extent to which DOD has reported those figures to Congress; and (3) describes DOD's progress in identifying PFAS-free firefighting alternatives. GAO analyzed DOD data on PFAS cleanup, costs (actual and estimated obligations), and foam alternatives; evaluated DOD's PFAS cost reporting against policy; and interviewed officials from DOD and selected installations and state environmental agencies.
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  • Substance Use Disorder: Reliable Data Needed for Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment Block Grant Program
    In U.S GAO News
    According to Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) data, the number of substance use disorder (SUD) treatment facilities and services increased since 2009. However, potential gaps in treatment capacity remain. For example, SAMHSA data show that, as of May 2020, most counties did not have all levels of SUD treatment available, including outpatient, residential, and hospital inpatient services; nearly one-third of counties had no levels of treatment available. Stakeholders GAO interviewed said it is important to have access to each level for treating individuals with varying SUD severity. Availability of Substance Use Disorder Treatment Levels, by County, as of May 2020 SAMHSA primarily relies on the number of individuals served to assess the effect of three of its largest grant programs on access to SUD treatment and recovery support services. However, GAO found the agency lacks two elements of reliable data—that they be consistent and relevant—for the number of individuals served under the Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment Block Grant (SABG) program. For example, grantee reporting includes individuals served outside of the program, which limits this measure's relevance for program assessment of access. SAMHSA plans to implement data quality improvements for the SABG program starting in fiscal year 2021. However, the agency has not identified specific changes needed to improve the information it collects on individuals served. As SAMHSA moves forward with its plans, it will be important for it to identify and implement such changes. Doing so will allow SAMHSA to better assess whether the SABG program is achieving a key goal of improving access to SUD treatment and recovery services or whether changes may be needed. Treatment for SUD—the recurrent use of substances, such as illicit drugs, causing significant impairment—can help individuals reduce or stop substance use and improve their quality of life. SUDs, and in particular drug misuse, have been a persistent and long-standing public health issue in the United States. Senate Report 115-289 contains a provision for GAO to review SUD treatment capacity. This report, among other things, describes what is known about SUD treatment facilities, services, and overall capacity; and examines the information SAMHSA uses to assess the effect of three grant programs on access to SUD treatment. GAO analyzed national SAMHSA data on SUD treatment facilities and providers, and reviewed studies that assessed treatment capacity. GAO also reviewed documentation for three of SAMHSA's largest grant programs available to states, and compared the agency's grant data quality to federal internal control standards. Finally, GAO interviewed SAMHSA officials and stakeholders, including provider groups. GAO is recommending that SAMHSA identify and implement changes to the SABG program's data collection efforts to improve two elements of reliability—the consistency and relevance—of data collected on individuals served. SAMHSA concurred with this recommendation. For more information, contact Alyssa M. Hundrup at (202) 512-7114 or HundrupA@gao.gov.
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