Department Press Briefing – March 17, 2021

Jalina Porter, Principal Deputy Spokesperson

Washington, D.C.

2:07 p.m. EST

MS PORTER: Good afternoon, everyone, and thank you for joining today’s briefing. I have one update at the top, and then I’ll resume to taking your questions. Today, Under Secretary for Political Affairs David Hale met with Afghanistan Foreign Minister Mohammed Haneef Atmar and Tajikistan Foreign Minister Sirojiddin Muhriddin for a virtual trilateral discussion on issues of mutual importance, including Afghanistan peace negotiations and regional security.

With Tajikistan’s and Afghanistan’s historical and cultural ties, overlapping political and security interests, including counterterrorism, and their shared eagerness for increased economic engagement, the meeting was an opportunity to collectively support the Afghan peace process and promote greater connectivity in Central Asia.

This meeting complements other trilateral engagements held separately last year between the United States, Afghanistan, and the governments of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

Now, I’ll give it a few minutes for others to join the queue, and we’ll start taking questions.

All right. Can we go to the line of Nike Ching?

OPERATOR: I’m sorry. I don’t see that line in the queue.

MS PORTER: Nike Ching isn’t in the queue – VOA?

OPERATOR: Oh, I’m sorry. Thank you. One moment. That line is open.

QUESTION: Hello.

MS PORTER: Hi, Nike.

QUESTION: Hi, Jalina, thank you very much for this call. I would like to ask about the Afghanistan peace process. How optimistic is the United States about the Moscow summit? Does the U.S. believe Russia can help the U.S. and allies with the peace process with the Taliban? And what are the priorities in Ambassador Khalilzad’s agenda for participating in the Moscow summit? Thank you.

MS PORTER: Thank you for the question, Nike. You’re correct. Ambassador Khalilzad will travel to Moscow tomorrow. And he’ll be there to share perspectives on ways to bring about political settlement and a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire. And, of course, we’re hopeful that the gathering will be productive, and we certainly welcome international efforts aimed at accelerating progress towards a just and durable peace in Afghanistan. When it comes to engaging with Russia, again, we’re clear that we’ll engage with them in ways that always advance American interests, but we’re also clear-eyed about the challenges that Russia poses. When there are opportunities for our relationship with Russia to be constructive and it’s in our mutual interest to do work together, we intend to do so. And this simply will be our mindset going into the meeting tomorrow.

Can we go to the line of Rich Edson of Fox?

QUESTION: On the sanctions announcement that came out last evening, just given that it was less than two days prior to this summit tomorrow, was the timing of those sanctions meant to send a message ahead of tomorrow’s meeting?

MS PORTER: Thank you, Rich. So yeah, as you saw yesterday, the Secretary released a statement announcing the update to the Hong Kong Autonomy Act report. And that simply underscores our deep concern with the National People’s Congress March 11 decision to unilaterally undermine Hong Kong’s electoral system. And again, we’ll always advocate and promote for a stable and prosperous Hong Kong that respects human rights, freedoms, political pluralism, and that serves the interests of Hong Kong, mainland China, and the broader international community.

Let’s go to the line of Kylie Atwood, please.

QUESTION: Hi, thank you for doing this. Two questions for you. On China and their vaccine diplomacy, they’ve obviously exported dozens of vaccines to other countries, secured vaccine production agreements with many other countries. Does the Biden administration believe that they can surpass China’s vaccine diplomacy after taking care of vaccinations at home? And then I have a second question, but I’ll let you do this one first.

MS PORTER: So let’s talk about your first question, Kylie. Thank you. When it comes to vaccine diplomacy, we’ll just keep that centered on our own goals. Again, as you know, President Biden has been strongly committed to ensuring that all Americans have access to safe and effective vaccines as soon as possible, and we’ve taken a lead role in beating this pandemic globally. As you know, we’ve provided $2 billion in COVAX with another $2 billion committed. At the same time, we know what work we had behind us with the amount Americans we’ve had lost, which has been half a million. But again, we’re also working with partners on ways that we can increase global capacity.

QUESTION: And then could I just ask one more question? There are reports that the Russian ambassador to the U.S., Ambassador Antonov, has been invited back to Moscow for consultations to discuss what to do and where to go in the context of U.S.-Russia relations. Do you guys have any response to that? And has Ambassador Antonov met with Biden administration officials? Thank you.

MS PORTER: Well, there’s certainly no meetings to read out. And we’re aware of Moscow’s recent announcement. But what we’ll say is that as we engage in Russia in ways that advance American interests, we also remain clear-eyed about the challenges that Russia poses. We can’t underscore that enough. And again, even as we work to – work with Russia to advance U.S. interests, we’ll be able to hold Russia accountable for any of their malign actions.

Can we go to the line of Simon Lewis of Reuters?

QUESTION: Hi. Hi, thanks. I have a question on Iran. There’s a report in The Financial Times that the U.S. is planning to continue enforcing sanctions from the Trump administration on Iranian oil exports even though the Chinese are ordering and importing a lot more oil, and quotes a senior administration official saying there’s going to be no tacit green light for Iran’s oil exports. So I wondered if this is a policy that you’re able to confirm, and if so, is this something that you can reasonably expect to be able to enforce given how difficult it is to track oil tankers? And it seems like this is already happening without any enforcement action being taken.

MS PORTER: Thank you for the question, Simon. We don’t have anything to report on that today, but we’re happy to take that question back and get back to you on that.

Let’s go to the line of Camilla Schick from CBS.

QUESTION: Hi, can you hear me?

MS PORTER: Hi, yes. I can hear you.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for this. Yesterday the NSC and State in a briefing previewed some of the priorities, the topics that would be discussed at the Anchorage meeting between Secretary Blinken and Jake Sullivan and the Chinese. On that list wasn’t included specifically COVID or the pandemic. I wanted to ask what is the State Department’s current or if there is a new line on what you expect to come out from the WHO COVID origins report that is expected this week or next and whether that will also be something that the Secretary would address with his Chinese counterparts in Anchorage. Thanks.

MS PORTER: Thank you for the question. Well, we certainly won’t get ahead of the outcome of the meeting. And when it comes to the WHO report directly, we expect transparency at the forefront of that report. And I’ll just reiterate that we’ll continue to press the PRC on issues where the U.S. and the international communities expect transparency and accountability; such as Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Tibet, pressure on Taiwan, human rights, South China Sea, the Mekong, and COVID-19, as well as other issues. And again, we’ll explore all other avenues for cooperation in both of our nations’ interests.

Can we go to the line of Casey O’Neill, Hearst?

OPERATOR: Your line is open.

QUESTION: Thanks so much. Thanks, Jalina, for doing this. I actually just had two quick questions regarding Israel and the Palestinian Authority. So I don’t know if you’ve seen, but some of our colleagues at The National just broke a story on an internal memo that they got their hands on vis-a-vis Israeli-Palestinian affairs. So my two questions, quickly, just – can you confirm the $15 million in COVID aid to the Palestinians? Can you confirm that amount, and if that’s actually going to be going to them? And also related to this, is there any talk of reversing the administration’s previously stated position and moving the U.S. embassy in Israel back to Tel Aviv? Thanks.

MS PORTER: So to your last question, our policy hasn’t changed. And to your first question, we don’t have any comments on that specific memo.

Can we go to the line of Jennifer Hansler of CNN?

QUESTION: Hi, Jalina. Thanks for doing this. I wanted to ask you, Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif said in an interview today that there is no – they see no reason to talk with the U.S. at this point, and they want to see this coordinated action of a return to compliance with the JCPOA. And he also said that the – Iran is prepared to exchange the Americans who are detained there for Iranians who are detained in the U.S. And I was wondering if State has comments on either of those statements. Thank you.

MS PORTER: Well, of course we are always ready for – to engage meaningfully, in meaningful diplomacy with Iran, and we welcome them to join us at that table. And simply, this is just one of the many issues that we’d like to discuss with Iran and that we’re open to doing so.

Can we go to the line of Francesco Fontemaggi?

QUESTION: Hi, Jalina. Can you hear me?

MS PORTER: Yes, I can hear you.

QUESTION: Yes, hi. Thank you. Going back to Russia, is – more specifically, is the State Department considering recalling Ambassador Sullivan from Moscow for consultation as the Russians did with their ambassador? And also, after the President’s interview this morning saying that he does believe that Vladimir Putin is a killer, is that also the assessment of the State Department? Does the State Department thinks, considers that President Putin is a killer? Thank you.

MS PORTER: I have nothing to add – further to add on President Biden’s comments. Again, when it comes to your question on the recall to our ambassador of Russia, I’ll just reiterate what we said before. Again, as we engage in Russia in a way that advances American interests, again, we remain clear-eyed about the challenges that Russia poses, and even as we work with Russia to advance U.S. interests, we’ll also work to hold them accountable. And so when it comes to any recall from us, we have nothing to comment on that.

Can we go to the line of Nadia Bilbassy?

QUESTION: Actually, Francesco answered my – asked my question. But let me follow up on Russia as well. You’re saying that you – that you will cooperate with Russia when there is interest to the U.S. national security, but you’re saying also that Ambassador Khalilzad will be in Moscow tomorrow. But do you believe that the language that the President used will complicate matters? And are you sure now that the Russians will receive Ambassador Khalilzad? And are you able to work on common ties of interests – like Syria, and Libya, and Iran – after these comments?

MS PORTER: Again, I have nothing to – further to add on what President Biden has already said. But I’ll reiterate that what he did emphasize is that, again, when there are areas of cooperation with Russia, then there are – especially when they come – of the interests of American national security, then we will cooperate with them.

And when it comes to Ambassador Khalilzad, he has been engaging in meaningful diplomacy and his – again, his meetings in Moscow are obviously important in the region and they’re important to us, and we’re clear-eyed about anything that they are capable of. But again, this is a good opportunity to – for the ambassador to talk about our relationship with Russia to be constructive, and again, to work in mutual interest that – interests that allow us to work together when we intend to do so.

Let’s go to the line of Michel Ghandour.

QUESTION: One on Yemen. Any update on the talks with the Houthis? And second, is the U.S. planning to send vaccines to the Palestinian Authority?

MS PORTER: I’ll take your second question first. Again, we absolutely welcome the reports of the arrival of COVAX shipments for the Palestinians. This is a part of the COVAX facility’s commitment to provide a total of 158,000 vaccine doses to the West Bank and Gaza, and as you know, the United States is COVAX’s largest donor.

And when it comes to your question about the Houthis and Yemen, we’ll just reiterate that, again, the United States is building on a UN framework and amplifying it throughout our own diplomatic engagement and expanded regional support. And again, we call on all parties to seize this moment and come to the table when it comes to peace and diplomacy in Yemen.

Can we go to the line of Conor Finnegan – excuse me – of ABC?

QUESTION: Hi, Jalina. I’m just following up on vaccinations as well. There are reports that the U.S. is holding up to millions of AstraZeneca vaccines that haven’t been approved yet by U.S. authorities. Why are there those – that surplus right now while they’re not approved in the U.S. and vaccines are so desperately needed elsewhere, like in Latin America or Africa? Thank you.

MS PORTER: Hi, Conor. I’m going to do my best to answer your question. A part of it had cut out, but I – I know it was largely due to vaccines. And I’ll just say that President Biden has made it clear that his current priority is to protect U.S. citizens from COVID-19. The accelerated vaccination schedule in the United States has been embraced under President Biden’s leadership and is making that a reality and a goal. At the same time, the President is also focused on the issue of expanding global vaccinations, including manufacturing and delivery, and we know that will be critical in – to ending this pandemic. We certainly look forward to ending this pandemic globally and, again, making sure that we have safe and effective vaccines.

Let’s go to the line of Jiha Ham.

QUESTION: Can you hear me?

MS PORTER: Yes, I can hear you.

QUESTION: Oh, hi. So on North Korea, Secretary Blinken said in Seoul that the authoritarian regime in North Korea continues to commit systematic and widespread abuses against its own people. So my question is how you are going to handle this human rights issue. The U.S. has been dealing with North Korea’s nuclear issue. So is this – human rights – something that you are trying to address as part of your efforts to achieve denuclearization of North Korea, or is it just a separate issue? Also, will there be a human rights envoy for North Korea in the State Department, which has been vacant more than four years? Thank you.

MS PORTER: Let me take your first question. So broadly speaking, we always center human rights at the forefront of our U.S. – our foreign policy and national security goals. We also remain concerned about North Korea’s nuclear activities and we are committed to denuclearization of North Korea.

When it comes to your second question, if we have an update for you later, we’ll be sure to announce that.

Let’s take one final question from Janne Pak of USA Journal.

QUESTION: Hello?

MS PORTER: Hi, I can hear you.

QUESTION: Yes, hi. Recently, North Korean Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, criticized the United States, but will the U.S. continue to a diplomatic approach to North Korea?

MS PORTER: Thank you for your question. So we are conducting a thorough interagency review of U.S. policy towards North Korea, and that includes evaluation of all available options to address the increasing threat posed by North Korea and its neighbors and the broader international community. And we’re continuing to lead a structured and detailed policy process that has integrated a diverse set of voices from throughout the government, and also incorporated inputs from think tanks as well as outside experts.

This concludes today’s briefing. Thank you, guys, so much for joining us today. We’ll be back again tomorrow at the same time.

(The briefing was concluded at 2:30 p.m.)

# # #

 

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    The Department of Justice today filed a statement of interest in a New Mexico federal court asserting that the States’ COVID-19 rules limiting private schools to operating at 25% of capacity but allowing public schools to operate at 50% of capacity violate the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
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  • Operation Legend: Case of the Day
    In Crime News
    Each weekday, the Department of Justice will highlight a case that has resulted from Operation Legend. Today’s case is out of the Eastern District of Wisconsin. Operation Legend launched in Milwaukee on July 29, 2020, in response to the city facing increased homicide and non-fatal shooting rates.
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  • Justice Department Requires Divestiture of Credit Karma Tax for Intuit to Proceed with Acquisition of Credit Karma
    In Crime News
    The Department of Justice announced today that it is requiring Intuit Inc. and Credit Karma Inc. (Credit Karma) to divest Credit Karma’s tax business, Credit Karma Tax, to Square Inc. in order for Intuit, the creator of TurboTax, to proceed with its $7.1 billion acquisition of Credit Karma.  The department said that without this divestiture, the proposed transaction would substantially lessen competition for digital do-it-yourself (DDIY) tax preparation products, which are software programs used by American taxpayers to prepare and file their federal and state returns.
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  • Vermont Man Charged with Hiring Person to Kidnap and Kill a Man in a Foreign Country, and Producing and Receiving Child Pornography
    In Crime News
    A federal grand jury in the District of Vermont returned a third superseding indictment today against a Burlington man for conspiring to kidnap and kill a man in a foreign country, murder for hire, and five child pornography offenses.
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  • Judiciary Report Underscores Commitment to Civics Education
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    Federal courts are approaching the 2020-2021 academic year with an endorsement of volunteer civics education efforts by judges and a willingness to support teachers in bringing the human face of the Judiciary into their civics and government classes, whether students are at home or in school.
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  • Statement on DOJ Office of Professional Responsibility Report on Jeffrey Epstein 2006-2008 Investigation
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    The executive summary of a report by the Department of Justice’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) was released today to affected victims.  The summary, which is available on the Justice Department website, provides the essential details about the findings of OPR’s investigation into the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida’s resolution of its 2006–2008 federal criminal investigation of Jeffrey Epstein and its interactions with victims during the investigation. 
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  • International Competition Network Addresses Enforcement And Policy Challenges of the Digital Economy at United States-Hosted 19th Annual Conference
    In Crime News
    The International Competition Network (ICN) held its 19th annual conference on September 14-17, 2020.  Co-hosted by the Antitrust Division and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the conference was the ICN’s first virtual conference.  
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  • Sentencing of Hong Kong Pro-Democracy Activists for Unlawful Assembly
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  • Introductory Remarks of Deputy Attorney General at Announcement of Civil Antitrust Lawsuit Filed Against Google
    In Crime News
    This morning, the Department of Justice and eleven states filed an antitrust civil lawsuit against Google, for unlawfully maintaining a monopoly in general search services and search advertising in violation of section two of the Sherman Act.
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  • Vivint Smart Home to Pay $20 Million for Violating the Fair Credit Reporting Act
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    The Department of Justice, together with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), announced a $20 million settlement resolving alleged violations of the FTC Act and the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), including violations of the Red Flags Rule. The settlement includes $15 million in civil penalties, which represents the largest civil penalty ever paid to resolve FCRA violations under the FTC Act.
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  • Close Air Support: Actions Needed to Enhance Friendly Force Tracking Capabilities and Fully Evaluate Training
    In U.S GAO News
    The Department of Defense (DOD) has made progress implementing initiatives to enhance capabilities that are used to identify friendly force locations during close air support (CAS) missions, but GAO identified additional actions that are needed to strengthen these efforts. Specifically, DOD has made limited progress in implementing 10 changes the department approved to address gaps in the interoperability of digital communications systems used to conduct CAS, hindering efforts to improve the speed and accuracy of information exchanges. DOD's efforts to assess the interoperability of digital systems used to perform CAS have been limited in scope. GAO found that DOD had formally assessed two out of 10 approved changes during joint service and multinational events, and these assessments were not conducted in a training environment that replicated capabilities of near-peer adversaries. DOD implemented a new capability in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility to help identify the positions of friendly forces during CAS missions. However, GAO found that DOD did not provide adequate training for personnel who operate it or conduct an evaluation to resolve implementation challenges that have hampered its performance. DOD conducts evaluations of training programs for forces that participate in CAS missions, but GAO identified two areas where DOD can improve its efforts. First, the Army and Marine Corps have not systematically evaluated the effectiveness of periodic training for ground observers providing targeting information due to a lack of centralized systems for tracking training data and the absence of designated entities to monitor service-wide training. Second, the use of contract aircraft for training increased substantially between 2017 and 2019, but DOD has not fully evaluated the use of non-military contract aircraft to train air controllers for CAS (see fig.). GAO found that differences between U.S. military aircraft and contract aircraft (e.g., airspeed) can result in a misalignment of aircraft capabilities for certain types of training events. Without evaluating CAS training fully, DOD cannot have assurance that its forces are prepared to conduct CAS missions safely and effectively. Number of Hours Non-Military Aircraft Were Used to Train for Close Air Support for Fiscal Years 2017 through 2019 The use of ordnance delivered by aircraft to support U.S. military forces that are in close proximity to enemy forces on the ground requires detailed planning, seamless communications, and effective training. Mistakes in communications or procedures used to identify and maintain an awareness of the positions of friendly forces on the battlefield during CAS can result in the loss of U.S. military personnel. Senate Report 116-48 and House Report 116-120, accompanying bills for the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020, included provisions for GAO to evaluate issues related to friendly-force identification capabilities in CAS missions. Among other things, this report evaluates the extent to which DOD has (1) implemented initiatives to enhance friendly-force identification capabilities during CAS, and (2) evaluated training for forces that participate in CAS. GAO analyzed documentation and interviewed officials regarding DOD efforts to develop and implement friendly force tracking capabilities for CAS; reviewed CAS training programs; and analyzed training data, including the number of hours that DOD used non-military contract aircraft for CAS training from 2017 through 2019. GAO is making 11 recommendations to DOD, including that DOD implement and assess initiatives to improve the interoperability of digital systems used in CAS and take additional steps to evaluate the training for certain forces that participate in CAS missions. DOD concurred with the recommendations. For more information, contact Cary Russell at (202) 512-5431 or RussellC@gao.gov.
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  • Former CEO Charged in Schemes to Defraud U.S. Government Related to the Conflict in Afghanistan
    In Crime News
    The former chief executive officer of a U.S. government contractor was charged today in connection with schemes to defraud the U.S. Department of Defense regarding contracts related to Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.
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  • Military Personnel: Perspectives on DOD’s and the Military Services’ Use of Borrowed Military Personnel
    In U.S GAO News
    Policies on the use of borrowed military personnel vary among military services. Borrowed military personnel refers to military personnel used for duties outside their assigned positions, such as security protection. DOD policy acknowledges that there may be instances in which military personnel can be used to appropriately satisfy a near-term demand but that DOD must be vigilant in ensuring that military personnel are not inappropriately utilized, particularly in a manner that may degrade readiness. Additionally, the Army and the Marine Corps have their own policies that describes how military personnel may be used on a temporary basis. DOD and the Army, Navy, and Air Force do not centrally track their use of borrowed military personnel, nor do they assess any impacts of that use on the readiness of units and personnel to accomplish their assigned missions. According to DOD and Army officials, the relatively limited use of borrowed military manpower, their limited impacts on readiness, and the existence of other readiness reporting mechanisms serve to obviate the need to collect and analyze this information centrally—especially given the resources that would be required to establish and maintain such a reporting process. The House Armed Services Committee has questioned whether DOD continues to divert servicemembers from their unit assignments to perform nonmilitary functions that could be performed by civilian employees. House Report 116-120, accompanying a bill for the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 included a provision for GAO to assess the levels and impacts of borrowed military personnel. This report examines DOD's and the military services' policies on the use of borrowed military personnel, the tracking and reporting of their use of borrowed military personnel, and any impacts of that use on readiness. For more information, contact Cary Russell at (202)512-5431 or RussellC@gao.gov.
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  • Secretary Antony J. Blinken to U.S. Mission Canada
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  • Covid-19 In Nursing Homes: HHS Has Taken Steps in Response to Pandemic, but Several GAO Recommendations Have Not Been Implemented
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found GAO's review of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that winter 2020 was marked by a significant surge in the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths in nursing homes. However, CDC data as of February 2021, show that both cases and deaths have declined by more than 80 percent since their peaks in December 2020. With the introduction of vaccines, observers are hopeful that nursing homes may be beginning to see a reprieve. Nevertheless, the emergence of more highly transmissible virus variants warrants the need for continued vigilance, according to public health officials. GAO's prior work has found that nursing homes have faced many difficult challenges battling COVID-19. While challenges related to staffing shortages have persisted through the pandemic, challenges related to obtaining Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and conducting COVID-19 tests—although still notable—have generally shown signs of improvement since summer 2020. Further, with the decline in nursing homes cases, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) updated its guidance in March 2021 to expand resident visitation, an issue that has been an ongoing challenge during the pandemic. Some new challenges have also emerged as vaccinations began in nursing homes, such as reluctance among some staff to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), primarily through CMS and the CDC, has taken steps to address COVID-19 in nursing homes. However, HHS has not implemented several relevant GAO recommendations, including: HHS has not implemented GAO's recommendation related to the Nursing Home Commission report, which assessed the response to COVID-19 in nursing homes. CMS released the Nursing Home Commission's report and recommendations in September 2020. When the report was released, CMS broadly outlined the actions the agency had taken, but the agency did not provide a plan that would allow it to track its progress. GAO recommended in November 2020 that HHS develop an implementation plan. As of February 2021, this recommendation had not been implemented. HHS has not implemented GAO's recommendation to fill COVID-19 data voids. CMS required nursing homes to begin reporting the number of cases and deaths to the agency effective May 8, 2020. However, CMS made the reporting of the data prior to this date optional. GAO recommended in September 2020 that HHS develop a strategy to capture more complete COVID-19 data in nursing homes retroactively back to January 1, 2020. As of February 2021, this recommendation had not been implemented. Implementing GAO's recommendations could help address some of the challenges nursing homes continue to face and fill important gaps in the federal government's understanding of, and transparency around, data on COVID-19 in nursing homes. In addition to monitoring HHS's implementation of past recommendations, GAO has ongoing work related to COVID-19 outbreaks in nursing homes and CMS's oversight of infection control and emergency preparedness. Why GAO Did This Study The COVID-19 pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on the 1.4 million elderly or disabled residents in the nation's more than 15,000 Medicare- and Medicaid-certified nursing homes, who are often in frail health and living in close proximity to one another. HHS, primarily through CMS and CDC, has led the pandemic response in nursing homes. The CARES Act includes a provision for GAO to conduct monitoring and oversight of the federal government's efforts to prepare for, respond to, and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. GAO has examined the government's response to COVID-19 in nursing homes through its CARES Act reporting (GAO-21-265, GAO-21-191, GAO-20-701, and GAO-20-625). This testimony will summarize the findings from these reports. Specifically, it describes COVID-19 trends in nursing homes and their experiences responding to the pandemic, and HHS's response to the pandemic in nursing homes. To conduct this previously reported work, GAO reviewed CDC data, agency guidance, and other relevant information on HHS's response to the COVID-19 pandemic. GAO interviewed agency officials and other knowledgeable stakeholders. In addition, GAO supplemented this information with updated data from CDC on COVID-19 cases and deaths reported by nursing homes as of February 2021. For more information, contact John E. Dicken at (202) 512-7114 or dickenj@gao.gov.
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  • Colorado Man Sentenced to Prison for Biodiesel Tax Credit Fraud
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    A Colorado resident was sentenced to 15 months in prison yesterday for his role in a biodiesel tax credit fraud scheme, announced Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Richard E. Zuckerman of the Justice Department’s Tax Division.
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  • Anesthesia Services: Differences between Private and Medicare Payments Likely Due to Providers’ Strong Negotiating Position
    In U.S GAO News
    Literature GAO reviewed indicated that private insurance payments for anesthesia services on average were more than 3-1/2 times those of Medicare payments. This payment difference increased from what GAO reported in 2007—average private insurance payments for certain anesthesia services in 2004 were about 3 times those of Medicare. While Medicare rates for anesthesia services are set by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), private insurance rates are set through negotiations between providers and private insurers. GAO identified three recent studies with analyses of private insurance and Medicare payments for anesthesia services: Researchers from Yale University calculated that private insurance payments were 3.67 times Medicare payments, on average, for services provided by anesthesiologists for one large private insurer in 2015 operating across all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The Health Care Cost Institute calculated that in 2017 private insurance payments ranged from 2 to 7 times Medicare payments, on average, across six common services provided by anesthesiologists in 33 states. Wide state-to-state variation within specific services was reported. The American Society of Anesthesiologists reported that private insurance payments were 3.46 times Medicare payments, on average, based on a survey of its members in 2019. According to studies GAO reviewed and stakeholders GAO interviewed, market factors likely enhanced anesthesia providers' negotiating position and allowed them to secure higher private payments. For example, several studies and stakeholders cited market concentration as a key factor that increased private payments for anesthesia services. In a market with high provider concentration—or relatively few providers in a given market—there is little competition between providers, enabling the providers within that market to negotiate for higher payments from private insurers. Studies also indicated that specialists, including anesthesia providers, could negotiate higher in-network payment rates because they were able to leave an insurer's network with little risk of losing patients or revenue. In addition, when anesthesia providers are not a part of a private insurer's network, they are typically able to bill for a higher amount than the insurer would pay for an in-network provider, known as out-of-network billing. This dynamic decreases providers' incentives to participate in insurer networks because it creates an attractive alternative to network participation. GAO's interviews with stakeholders, literature review, and review of agency data generally did not indicate that the supply of anesthesia providers was insufficient for Medicare beneficiaries. CMS data indicate that the number of active anesthesia providers per 100,000 Medicare beneficiaries increased from 2010 through 2018 and that a very small number of anesthesia providers opted out of the Medicare program. Furthermore, researchers and stakeholders GAO interviewed were not aware of any issues with access to anesthesia services for Medicare beneficiaries, including those in traditionally underserved rural areas. In 2018, Medicare paid over $2 billion for anesthesia services, such as general anesthesia administered to beneficiaries undergoing surgical or other invasive procedures. The joint explanatory statement for the Further Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2020 included a provision for GAO to update its 2007 report and examine how differences in payment rates for anesthesia services have changed since that time. In 2007, GAO reported that Medicare payments in 2004 for certain anesthesia services provided by anesthesiologists were on average 67 percent lower than private insurance payments in certain geographic areas—indicating that private payments were about 3 times more than Medicare payments at that time. This report describes what is known about (1) recent trends in differences between Medicare and private payments for anesthesia services, and (2) the sufficiency of the supply of anesthesia providers for Medicare beneficiaries. GAO reviewed literature and available published data on payment differences for anesthesia services, published in the United States since 2010. GAO also reviewed data from CMS on the number of anesthesia providers from 2010, 2018, and 2020. GAO also interviewed a nongeneralizable selection of three research groups, two beneficiary advocacy groups, and five stakeholder groups, including those representing anesthesiologists, nurse anesthetists, and hospitals, to obtain their perspectives on these issues. The Department of Health and Human Services provided no comments on this report. For more information, contact Jessica Farb at (202) 512-7114 or farbj@gao.gov.
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  • New Jersey Man Charged with Tax Evasion and Filing False Returns
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    A federal grand jury in Newark, New Jersey, returned an indictment today charging a New Jersey man with tax evasion and filing false tax returns.
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  • Compounding Pharmacy Mogul Sentenced for Multimillion-Dollar Health Care Fraud Scheme
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    A Mississippi businessman was sentenced today for his role in a multimillion-dollar scheme to defraud TRICARE, the health care benefit program serving U.S. military, veterans, and their respective family members, as well as private health care benefit programs.
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