Department Press Briefing – March 5, 2021

Ned Price, Department Spokesperson

Washington, D.C.

1:49 p.m. EST

MR PRICE: Good afternoon, everyone. Just two very quick things at the top. One, happy Friday to everyone. Number two, we’re sorry for getting started a couple minutes late here. But with that, we will take questions. Operator, do you want to repeat the instructions for questions?

OPERATOR: Sure. And once again, if you have a question, press 1 then 0 at this time.

MR PRICE: We’ll go to the line of Matt Lee.

QUESTION: Hi there. Can you hear me?

MR PRICE: We can.

QUESTION: Happy Friday.

MR PRICE: Happy Friday.

QUESTION: I wanted to ask you – they’re very brief, and I have three separate topics. One, on Burma, are you expecting anything more today or over (inaudible).

MR PRICE: Matt, we may have now lost you. We seem to have lost the line of Matt Lee. I did hear him say – mention Burma, so let me just take the opportunity to say a few words on that topic before we move on.

I would want to reiterate just how appalled we are by the horrific violence that’s been perpetrated against the people of Burma, again in response to nothing other than their peaceful calls to respect their rights and to restore the democratically elected civilian government. We condemn Burmese security forces’ brutal killing of unarmed people, their attacks on journalists and activists, their ongoing unjust detention, including of those journalists.

We call on all countries again to speak with one voice to condemn the military’s brutal violence against its own people, to promote accountability for the military’s actions that have led to the loss of so many lives. In close coordination with our partners and our allies, we have made clear to the military that violence against the people of Burma is unacceptable. The people of Burma have spoken out against the military coup and they are peacefully protesting and expressing their aspirations for, again, nothing more than a return to democracy and the rule of law. The United States stands with them, and we continue to work with our allies and partners around the world to speak and to act with one voice and in one motion.

We will go to the line of Will Mauldin. Oh, our phone died. Operator, you there?

OPERATOR: Yes, I am.

MR PRICE: Oh, great. Okay. We’re still live. Do we have – do you have Will Mauldin on the phone?

OPERATOR: No. So once again, if you have a question, please re-press 1 then 0. And then, I’m sorry, who would you like to take now?

MR PRICE: Do we have the line of Will Mauldin from The Wall Street Journal?

OPERATOR: I do not see his line open.

MR PRICE: Okay. We’ll go to the line of Shaun Tandon.

QUESTION: I hope you can hear this one. I wanted to ask you about the situation in Hong Kong. The – in China, of course, you might have seen that there has – there’s been a move to look at lawmakers, to have approval over lawmakers there. I wanted to see if you have any comments on that, and are there any actions the United States will take in return? Thanks.

MR PRICE: We do have a comment there. The United States condemns the PRC’s continuing assault on democratic institutions in Hong Kong. At the March 5 National People’s Congress opening session, NPC Standing Committee Vice Chairman Wang Chen previewed a series of quote-unquote “reforms” to Hong Kong’s electoral system. These are a direct attack on Hong Kong’s autonomy, Hong Kong’s freedoms, and the democratic processes, limiting participation, reducing democratic representation, and stifling political debate in order to defy the clear will of the people of Hong Kong and to deny their voice in their own government and governance.

If implemented, these measures would drastically undermine Hong Kong’s democratic institutions, and they run directly counter to the Basic Law’s clear acknowledgment that Hong Kong elections should progress towards universal suffrage. We call on the PRC to uphold its international obligations and commitments, and to act consistently with Hong Kong’s Basic Law. We’ve said this from the start, that the United States stands together with the people of Hong Kong, the people of Hong Kong who are seeking nothing more than the universal rights to which they are owed and should be guaranteed.

We will go to the line of – well, it looks like we may have Will Mauldin again.

OPERATOR: And pardon me, at this time I do not see his line on my —

MR PRICE: All right. I’m sorry, Will. We’re having trouble. We’ll go to the line of Cindy Saine.

OPERATOR: And again, I’m sorry, I don’t have her name, either.

MR PRICE: Okay. How about the line of Laura Kelly?

QUESTION: Hello? I hope you can hear me.

MR PRICE: We can, yes.

QUESTION: Okay. Great. Thank you. I’m going to ask a question on China, if that’s all right. Secretary of State Blinken has said that he believes what is taking place in Xinjiang against Uyghur Muslims amounts to genocide, and said that the State Department is focused on a number of things in response. Are these measures that have already been taken enough, or is the State Department looking to take more action?

MR PRICE: Well, you are precisely right. The Secretary of State has made the determination that the People’s Republic of China has committed crimes against humanity and genocide in Xinjiang. The then Secretary-Designate Blinken spoke to his determination vis-a-vis genocide during his confirmation hearing. The department has previously spoken to the determination regarding crimes against humanity in the same region.

Look, our charge at the moment is to rally our likeminded partners and allies around the world – that includes in the Indo-Pacific, that includes in Europe, it includes in all regions of the globe – to stand, to speak with one voice, and to condemn the human rights abuses that are taking place in Xinjiang, the repression that has taken place there, the repression – going back to the last question – that is taking place in Hong Kong and elsewhere. That’s precisely what we’re doing.

There will be – we will have more to say on this. I don’t think anyone is satisfied yet with the international response to what has taken place in Xinjiang, and that’s precisely why we are in many ways galvanizing the world, galvanizing collective action to make clear that these sort of abuses against human rights in Xinjiang and elsewhere will not be tolerated.

We’ll go to the line of Jiha Ham with VOA.

QUESTION: Hello? Can you hear me?

MR PRICE: Yes, go ahead.

QUESTION: Okay, hi. Is – there are a media reports that Secretary Blinken is visiting Japan and South Korea this month. What will he be discussing during this visit? What would be the main agenda, I mean? So – and also, why has the Secretary chosen to visit this area first?

MR PRICE: Well, we don’t have any travel to confirm or speak to at this time. But what I would say more broadly is that we have signaled our deep commitment to the Indo-Pacific region. You have seen Secretary Blinken, you have seen President Biden, you have seen others in this administration speak to their counterparts in the region. For his part, Secretary Blinken has met with the Quad as an entity virtually, of course. We have spoken to the fact that this region is an extraordinarily important one for the United States, for our own interests, for our values as well. We see it as pivotal. And so we will continue to engage with institutions, with partners in the region. And if we have more to say on how precisely we’ll do that going forward, we’ll let you know.

We’ll go to Muhammed Elahmad.

QUESTION: Hi, Ned. Hi, everyone. Happy Friday. I hope you can hear me well.

MR PRICE: We can, yes. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Yes. I have two questions about Iran and Yemen. According to Iranian news reports citing one Iranian official, the U.S. Government agreed to release frozen Iranian assets in the Commercial Bank of Iraq. So do you have anything to say about this? Do you confirm or deny those reports? And also, I’m – on Yemen, I’m wondering if the special envoy to Yemen, Mr. Timothy Lenderking, is still in the region. I believe he was supposed to return two days ago to Washington. If yes, can you give us an update about his latest meetings there, and how long that he plans to stay in the region? Thank you.

I have other questions that I would save for later when you change subjects. Thanks.

MR PRICE: Okay. Thank you very much. So on your first question, I believe you are referring to reports about Iraq’s electricity waiver. When it comes to that, we don’t have any updates to offer. As I understand it, Iraq’s 90-day electricity waiver remains valid. We are not aware of any interruptions when it comes to that. When it comes to Timothy Lenderking, Special Envoy Lenderking, he does remain in the region. As of today, he is in Riyadh. I believe he returned to Riyadh earlier this week. As we said earlier this week, on his now second trip to the region, Special Envoy Lenderking has engaged with counterparts in all of the GCC countries. He has visited every GCC country except for Bahrain. On the way over to the Gulf, he made a call, spoke to Bahrain’s foreign minister.

All part of the effort that this administration has prioritized, to bring a diplomatic, durable solution to this grueling conflict in Yemen. Special Envoy Lenderking is working closely with UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths. Everything Special Envoy Lenderking is doing is intended to support the work of UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths. I don’t have any firm details for you as to how much longer the special envoy will remain in the region, but whether he is in the region or whether he is back here, he will remain engaged in this important work.

We’ll go to Will Mauldin.

QUESTION: Hello, can you hear me?

MR PRICE: Yes, now we can.

QUESTION: Okay, great. Yeah, I just wanted to ask about State Department employee Freddy Klein, Federico Klein, who was arrested in connection with the Capitol riot, and whether – what – whether you have a comment on that. Does it mean anything for political versus career appointees or whether there are any other similar actions pending? Thanks.

MR PRICE: Can you hear me?

OPERATOR: Yes, we can hear you.

MR PRICE: I’m sorry, did you hear that last answer about Mr. Klein?

OPERATOR: No, we did not.

MR PRICE: Very sorry about that. Okay, so to the question, we do not have a specific comment on Mr. Klein. This is a matter that’s being investigated by the FBI, and they are the appropriate agency to answer questions specific to the charges. I believe the Department of Justice will be in a position to provide more details on those charges today.

Generally speaking, Mr. Klein served as a Schedule C presidential employee at the Department of State from 2017 until his resignation in January. He worked as a staff assistant with the transition team and as a special assistant in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, but we of course wouldn’t comment on any pending criminal charges.

I’m very sorry for the technical issues we’re having today. We’ll try to go to the line of Cindy Saine.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) statement on the former Ukrainian official Kolomoyskyy – is it unusual to designate a former public official as an oligarch? And could you please elaborate a bit about what specific corrupt acts he committed during his time as governor? Thank you.

MR PRICE: Well, thanks for the question, and I imagine you saw the statement from the Secretary on this matter. Today the Secretary did announce the public designation of Ihor Kolomoyskyy due to his involvement in significant corruption. Today’s action sends a strong signal that the United States stands with all Ukrainians whose work drives reforms forward. We are committed to helping Ukraine achieve a future that so many Ukrainians demanded six years ago on the Maidan. This designation is based on acts during his time in office, but the department is also drawing attention to Kolomoyskyy’s current and ongoing efforts to undermine democratic processes and institutions, which pose a serious threat to Ukraine’s future.

We are committed to promoting accountability and combating impunity for those involved in significant corruption and will – and we will continue to use all tools available to combat corruption globally. These public designations under authorities such as this allow the United States to promote accountability for government officials who engage in corruption or perpetrate human rights violations and abuses and to support efforts to disrupt and to deter future abuses.

When it comes to the basis for today’s actions, as we have said previously, the Secretary of State has credible information that Kolomoyskyy was involved in significant corruption while serving as the governor. This corruption undermined rule of law and the Ukrainian public faith in their government’s democratic institutions and in public processes. This credible information is gathered from a variety of sources; of note, numerous media outlets have widely reported on Kolomoyskyy’s corrupt activities, and it’s been the subject of investigations by Ukrainian Government as well.

All right. Why don’t we go back to the line of Matt Lee, since he was cut off?

QUESTION: Hey, thanks. Sorry. I just wanted to ask you about two things. AUMF – you guys have any thoughts on that?

And then secondly, yesterday, your – can you hear me?

MR PRICE: I can, yes.

QUESTION: Yeah, okay. And then yesterday at the Pentagon, your colleague, John Kirby – and one-time predecessor John Kirby spoke about the attacks in Iraq and who was responsible for them, and said that they were – that they believe they came from Shia-backed militia. And when he was pressed and asked what does Shia-backed mean, he didn’t really have much of a response. Do you guys still believe that Shia militia in Iraq are backed, are supported by Iran, and do you think that Iranian-backed Shia militia are responsible? Thanks.

MR PRICE: Thanks for those questions. On the second, my Pentagon counterpart was referring to the activities and the attacks of Iran-backed militias. I imagine he will – I refer you to him for any additional questions. But the activity we’re talking about is that of Iran-backed militias.

On the question of the AUMF, I know the White House has spoken to this in recent hours even. I believe my colleague at the White House recently took a question on it pointing to the framework for a narrow and specific authorization. And this, of course, is based on this President’s longstanding belief that we need to work constructively with Congress. We believe deeply in Congress’ prerogative in this area, and it’s time to reset the balance between the Executive Branch and the Legislative Branch when it comes to the authorization for the use of military force.

It also gets to this President’s view that for two decades now this country has engaged in forever wars, so-called forever wars, that have broadened in scope. And we believe that it is very much in line with our democratic republic, very much in line with our constitution that we engage in a constructive dialogue and that Congress assert its prerogative in this area. And so that’s precisely why you have heard the White House now speak to their desire to see this narrow and specific framework for the use of force overseas.

Okay. Let’s go to the line of Joseph Aboush.

QUESTION: Hi, can you hear me?

MR PRICE: We can.

QUESTION: Great, thanks. I wanted to ask if you had any comment on Iran’s president saying the Trump-era sanctions cost the Iranian economy $200 billion in damages. And secondly, was the State Department’s denial today that the U.S. was considering sanctions against Lebanon’s central bank chief an endorsement of the bank’s governor himself, because it seems a bit unusual to come out with a denial of a report that didn’t cite any U.S. officials. And are there concerns now that he’s said that he’s going to file lawsuit against a Bloomberg reporter of press freedom? Thank you.

MR PRICE: Well, we had an opportunity yesterday to speak generally to the protests in Lebanon. What we said at the time is that we’re closely monitoring them. We and our other international partners, we’ve repeatedly underscored both public and privately the urgency for Lebanon’s political leaders to finally act upon the commitments they made to form a credible and effective government. We support, of course, the Lebanese people in their continued calls for accountability and the reforms needed to realize economic opportunity, better governance, and an end to endemic corruption.

When it comes to the reports about possible sanctions on Riad Salameh, those are not true.

When it comes to Iran, look, I, of course, don’t want to get into a tit-for-tat on this question. What we have said and the offer that we have put on the table together with our European partners still stands. It’s been a couple weeks now that we indicated our willingness to accept an invitation on the part of the EU to engage in direct diplomacy. On our part, it would be clear-eyed, principled, direct diplomacy with Iran in the context of the P5+1. That’s where we believe these issues need to be addressed and need to be discussed if we are to make progress in a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA commitments. I think I would leave it at that.

All right, we will take a final question or two here. We’ll go to Ben Samuels. Ben, are you there?

QUESTION: Can you hear me?

MR PRICE: Oh, yes, we have you now.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks. All good?

MR PRICE: Yes, go ahead.

QUESTION: Okay, great. So the other day, Matt Lee asked where Palestinians should go for redress if not to the ICC, and you directly related it to the need for achieving a two-state solution. But you’ve also said from the podium that a final status agreement is not the in the immediate offing. So where does the administration believe that Palestinians should appropriately air their grievances as you work on rebuilding the foundation for improved relations? And also, does the administration plan on conditioning the resumption of financial assistance in cooperation with Palestinian leadership on their continued support of the ICC probe?

MR PRICE: So, again, what we have said is that we will seek to advance the possibility of achieving a negotiated two-state solution, and we continue to believe that that two-state solution is the best course because it guarantees that Israel would live in peace and security alongside a viable Palestinian state. This approach remains the best way to ensure Israel’s future as a democratic and Jewish state, while also, of course, enabling the Palestinian people to live with dignity and security in a viable state of their own.

We’ll work closely with Israel. We’ll renew our diplomatic ties with the Palestinians. We’ll consult with partners in the region and beyond. We’ll consult with all of those who have a common interest in supporting efforts to advance a lasting peace. What was your second question again?

QUESTION: If the administration plans on conditioning the resumption of financial assistance and cooperation with the Palestinian leadership based on their continued support of the ICC probe.

MR PRICE: Look, what we have said is that we will look for ways to support the Palestinian people. We have committed to that. We’ve also at the same time made our approach to the ICC very clear. You saw that in a statement from – when – I should say our approach to this particular matter, when it comes to the ICC, is very clear. You saw that in a statement from the Secretary earlier this week. You heard it from the podium as well. We’ll go – we’ll end with the line of Rosiland Jordan.

QUESTION: Regarding Afghanistan, we have some reporting out of Kabul that Ambassador Khalilzad was meeting and trying to be persuasive to all of the locally interested parties to support a type of peace conference – and I’m using that term loosely – the last week of March. Do you have a readout on the ambassador’s latest trip to the region? Is there going to be a global conference sponsored by the UN with U.S. participation the last week of March? Thanks.

MR PRICE: Thanks, Rosiland. Well, as you know, Special Representative Khalilzad and his team, they’re in the region. They’re meeting with Afghan and regional leaders to discuss a path forward and a path forward that produces durable results. The outcomes of Afghan – Afghanistan peace negotiations are up to Afghans. We believe those outcomes should reflect the wishes and the aspirations of the Afghan people. We continue to consult closely with our allies, our partners, countries in the region regarding how we can collectively support this peace process, and we’re considering a number of different ideas that might accelerate the process forward. That’s precisely what the special representative and his team have been doing, first on the ground in Kabul and now on the ground in Doha, and what they will continue doing in an effort to achieve progress on this very important and necessary goal.

I think we will end it there. We will see – or we will see many of you in person on Monday. Thanks very much. And I’m sorry for the technological difficulties today.

(The briefing was concluded at 2:17 p.m.)

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    What GAO Found The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Department of Transportation (DOT), and Department of the Treasury (Treasury), among others, continue to provide financial assistance to mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. FEMA reported obligating over $79 billion from its Disaster Relief Fund to respond to COVID-19. Through several programs, FEMA is providing help to individuals with funeral costs; reimbursing communities for vaccine distribution; and funding federal agencies' efforts to support communities, including National Guard deployments. DOT and Treasury continue to make available the over $200 billion appropriated by COVID-19 relief laws for financial assistance to the transportation sector, including to air carriers, airports and airport tenants, Amtrak, and transit agencies. Through several financial assistance programs, GAO's work has found DOT and Treasury have provided critical support to the transportation sector during a period of sharp declines in travel demand and uncertainty about the pace and nature of the recovery. Depending on the program, financial assistance has reportedly enabled recipients to avoid layoffs, maintain service, and ramp up operations as demand for their services improves. Based on GAO's prior work examining responses to public health and fiscal emergencies, including the COVID-19 pandemic, GAO has (1) identified key lessons learned that could improve the federal response to emergencies, and (2) made several related recommendations, including ones that highlight the importance of applying these lessons learned. For example, DOT has not developed a national aviation preparedness plan to coordinate, establish, and define roles and responsibilities for communicable diseases across the federal government. GAO recommended in 2015 that DOT work with federal partners to develop such a plan, but it has not taken any action. Without such a plan, the U.S. is less prepared to respond to future communicable disease events. In addition, FEMA has faced challenges collecting and analyzing data on requests for supplies, such as personal protective equipment, made through the federal government. In 2020, GAO recommended that FEMA work with relevant stakeholders to develop an interim solution to help states track the status of their supply requests and plan for supply needs. FEMA has not taken action on this recommendation, and until the agency develops a solution, states, tribes, and territories will likely continue to face challenges that hamper the effectiveness of their COVID-19 response. Why GAO Did This Study In response to the public health and economic crises created by the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress provided billions of dollars across a range of agencies to mitigate the effects of COVID-19. This included billions to: FEMA's Disaster Relief Fund to provide assistance to individuals as well as state, local, tribal, and territorial governments, and DOT and Treasury to provide financial assistance to the transportation sector. This statement describes: (1) the federal response and selected relief programs administered by FEMA, DOT, and Treasury and (2) lessons learned based on GAO's reviews of selected COVID-19 relief programs, including related recommendations and their implementation status. This statement is based on GAO's body of work on the CARES Act issued from June 2020 through July 2021.To update this information, GAO reviewed agency documentation; and interviewed agency officials, industry associations, and selected businesses that applied to these programs on the latest implementation efforts.
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    What GAO Found Under Medicare Advantage (MA), the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) contracts with private MA plans to provide health care coverage to Medicare beneficiaries. MA beneficiaries in the last year of life disenrolled to join Medicare fee-for-service (FFS) at more than twice the rate of all other MA beneficiaries, GAO's analysis found. MA plans are prohibited from limiting coverage based on beneficiary health status, and disproportionate disenrollment by MA beneficiaries in the last of year life may indicate potential issues with their care. Stakeholders told GAO that, among other reasons, beneficiaries in the last of year life may disenroll because of potential limitations accessing specialized care under MA. While CMS monitors MA disenrollments, the agency does not specifically review disenrollments by beneficiaries in the last year of life. Doing so could help CMS better ensure the care provided to these beneficiaries. Medicare Advantage Beneficiary Disenrollments to Join Fee-for-Service, 2016-2017 Beneficiaries in the last year of life who disenrolled from MA to join FFS increased Medicare costs as they moved from MA's fixed payment arrangement to FFS, where payments are based on the amount and cost of services provided. GAO's analysis shows that FFS payments for such beneficiaries who disenrolled in 2016 were $422 million higher than their estimated MA payments had they remained in MA, and were $490 million higher for those that disenrolled in 2017. Estimated Medicare Advantage Payments for Beneficiaries in Last Year of Life that Disenrolled Compared to Fee-for-Service Payments, 2016-2017 Why GAO Did This Study In contrast to Medicare FFS, which pays providers for claims for services, CMS pays MA plans a fixed monthly amount per beneficiary to provide health care coverage. For beneficiaries with higher expected health care costs, MA payments are increased. In 2019, CMS paid MA plans about $274 billion to cover about 22 million beneficiaries. Prior GAO and other studies have shown that beneficiaries in poorer health are more likely to disenroll from MA to join FFS, which may indicate that they encountered issues with their care under MA. Beneficiaries in the last year of life are generally in poorer health and often require high-cost care. GAO was asked to review disenrollment by MA beneficiaries in the last year of life. In this report, GAO examined (1) disenrollments from MA to join FFS by beneficiaries in the last year of life, and CMS's associated monitoring; and (2) the costs of such disenrollments to Medicare. GAO analyzed CMS disenrollment and mortality data for 2015 through 2018—the most current data at the time of the analysis—to examine the extent of MA beneficiary disenrollment in the last year of life. To estimate the costs of disenrollment, GAO used CMS data to estimate payments for disenrolled beneficiaries had they remained in MA, and compared those estimates against those beneficiaries' actual FFS costs.
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    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found Most school and veteran service organization (VSO) officials GAO interviewed stated that when given the choice between the Post 9/11 GI Bill (GI Bill) and the Veteran Readiness and Employment (VR&E) program, veterans with disabilities will base their choice on which program best suits their unique goals, preferences, and circumstances. For example, certain veterans may prefer the GI Bill's flexibility to independently select courses of study, whereas others may prefer to have the assistance of a counselor to select a course of study as part of an employment plan, as provided under VR&E. However, most officials GAO interviewed said veterans with disabilities often use the GI Bill for education benefits without knowing that the VR&E program exists, or that it can pay for education, provide assistive equipment for their disability, or offer unique benefits of working with a counselor. Selected Comments Regarding the Post-9/11 GI Bill and Veteran Readiness & Employment Programs “Had I known about VR&E I would have [used it.]” -Veteran with disabilities “I often think of VR&E as sort of a hidden program when it comes to education benefits.” -VSO official ”Veterans with disabilities are often not aware of the differences between the two programs.” -School official Source: GAO survey of veterans and GAO interviews with school and VSO officials | GAO-21-450 VA provides information about education benefits to veterans with disabilities through various methods, including in-person communication, online materials, and written communications. However, on the agency website, VA.gov, few webpages devoted to VR&E explicitly mention that it can help pay for a college degree. In addition, the letters that VA sends to veterans when they receive their disability rating do not specifically mention that VR&E can cover education costs for a college degree. VA's online GI Bill Comparison Tool allows veterans to learn more about the tuition amounts each program will cover for certain schools, but it does not inform veterans on the key differences in program features across the programs. Most school and VSO officials GAO interviewed said VA's efforts do not adequately inform veterans with disabilities about their potential education benefit options, as evidenced by the number of veterans with disabilities they encounter who are unaware that VR&E exists or who do not fully understand the benefits VR&E can provide. Including more information about how VR&E can help veterans pay for higher education, and facilitating direct comparison between the features of the GI Bill and VR&E, would help better position veterans with disabilities to choose the program that best meets their needs. Why GAO Did This Study VA offers education benefits to veterans with disabilities through the GI Bill, VA's largest education program, and VR&E, which helps veterans with service-connected disabilities re-enter the workforce. Each offers distinct features that may better serve veterans depending on their individual circumstances. However, veterans with disabilities may not know that VR&E can help pay for education as part of its employment services. GAO was asked to what extent eligible veterans are aware of the comparative features of the programs. This report examines (1) the reported factors that influence whether veterans with disabilities select the Post-9/11 GI Bill or VR&E, and (2) how VA informs veterans with disabilities about the education benefits available to them from each program, and the effectiveness of those efforts. For both programs, GAO reviewed relevant federal laws; analyzed participant data; conducted semi-structured interviews with officials from schools and VSOs selected for their depth of knowledge about veteran affairs, and reviewed relevant VA informational materials.
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    What GAO Found To help government contractors keep their workforce in a ready state during the COVID-19 pandemic, section 3610 of the CARES Act generally authorized government agencies to reimburse contractors for paid leave provided to contractor personnel and subcontractors during the national emergency. Section 3610 did not appropriate specific funding for this purpose. The four agencies GAO reviewed—the Departments of Defense, Energy, and Homeland Security, and NASA—reported use of section 3610 authority totaling at least $882.8 million over 14 months. The extent to which the agencies used the authority varied, from $1.4 million at Homeland Security to $760.7 million at Energy. Further, Defense officials estimated that defense contractors have more than $4 billion in paid leave costs that are potentially eligible for reimbursement under section 3610. Defense officials also noted, however, that the department does not plan to reimburse this full amount using existing funding. Agencies also based their reimbursement decisions on the nature of the work performed by contractors, such as whether telework was an option. Twelve out of the 15 contractors GAO interviewed reported that paid leave reimbursement had a great or moderate effect on their ability to retain employees (see figure), in particular those with specialized skills or clearances. Selected Contractors' Views on the Effect of Paid Leave Reimbursement on Workforce Retention Given the urgency of the pandemic, agencies prioritized quick implementation of section 3610 over a more deliberative process, resulting in variations such as how agencies tracked use of the authority. Officials from all four agencies said that they either have captured or intend to capture lessons learned from implementing section 3610 and are willing to share these with other federal agencies. However, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB)—which coordinates government-wide contracting policy—has not collected and shared lessons learned. With coordination from OMB's Office of Federal Procurement Policy, the government could seize an opportunity to enhance implementation of paid leave reimbursement provisions that may be enacted as part of rapid federal responses to future emergencies. Why GAO Did This Study In March 2020, Congress passed the CARES Act, which provides over $2 trillion in emergency assistance for those affected by COVID-19. Section 3610 of the CARES Act enables agencies, at their discretion, to reimburse contractors for paid leave provided to their employees and subcontractors who are unable to access work sites due to facility closures or other restrictions, and whose duties cannot be performed remotely during the pandemic. The CARES Act also includes a provision for GAO to review federal contracting pursuant to authorities provided in the Act. In September 2020, GAO found that agencies had not made much use of section 3610 authority as of July 2020, and expectations of future use varied. This report (1) examines how selected federal agencies have used section 3610 authority and (2) presents selected contractors' perspectives on COVID-19 paid leave reimbursement. GAO reviewed guidance and data and interviewed cognizant officials from four agencies with contract obligations greater than $10 billion in fiscal year 2019. GAO also selected a non-generalizable sample of 15 contractors that received or requested section 3610 reimbursements from one or more of the selected agencies and conducted semi-structured interviews of contractor representatives.
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    What GAO Found The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) took steps—such as issuing guidance and trainings—to support the response to the COVID-19 pandemic in Community Living Centers (CLC), which are VA-owned and -operated nursing homes. This guidance focused on, for example, limiting CLC entry and testing residents and staff for COVID-19, while the trainings were intended to prepare staff for, among other things, a surge in cases. However, the agency conducted limited oversight of infection prevention and control in these facilities during the first year of the pandemic, from March 2020 through February 2021. In particular, the agency suspended annual in-person inspections of CLCs before resuming them virtually in February 2021. The agency also required that CLCs conduct a one-time self-assessment of their infection prevention and control practices but did not review the results in a timely manner to make more immediate improvements. VA officials acknowledged these shortcomings as the agency responded in real time to the rapidly evolving pandemic. As VA has described this time as a “learning period,” it could benefit from assessing its decisions and actions related to oversight of infection prevention and control during the pandemic to identify any lessons learned. Such an assessment would align with VA's plans to assess and report on the agency's overall response to the pandemic as well as its strategic goal to promote continuous quality improvement in CLCs. Results from such an assessment—which could look at both successes and missed opportunities—could help VA better prepare for future infectious disease outbreaks in CLCs. Why GAO Did This Study Close to 8,000 veterans per day received nursing home care provided by VA in CLCs in fiscal year 2020. COVID-19 has posed significant risks to nursing home residents and staff, as residents are often in frail health, and residents and staff have close daily contact with each other. The CARES Act includes a provision that GAO monitor the federal response to the pandemic. This report describes, among other objectives, guidance and training VA has issued to help CLCs respond to the pandemic and examines VA's oversight of infection prevention and control in CLCs during the pandemic. GAO analyzed documents, including guidance, training-related materials, and CLC self-assessments of their infection prevention and control practices. GAO also interviewed VA officials and CLC staff, the latter from five facilities selected based on factors such as having been cited for infection prevention and control deficiencies prior to the pandemic.
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    What GAO Found The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) developed a process in July 2018 to review tariff exclusion requests for some imported products from China and later developed a process to extend these exclusions. From 2018 to 2020, U.S. stakeholders submitted about 53,000 exclusion requests to USTR for specific products covered by the tariffs. USTR's process consisted of a public comment period to submit requests, an internal review, an interagency assessment, and the decision publication. USTR documented some procedures for reviewing exclusion requests. However, it did not fully document all of its internal procedures, including roles and responsibilities for each step in its review process. GAO reviewed selected exclusion case files and found inconsistencies in the agency's reviews. For example, USTR did not document how reviewers should consider multiple requests from the same company, and GAO's case file review found USTR performed these steps inconsistently. Another case file lacked documentation to explain USTR's final decision because the agency's procedures did not specify whether such documentation was required. Federal internal control standards state that agencies should document their procedures to ensure they conduct them consistently and effectively, and to retain knowledge. Without fully documented internal procedures, USTR lacks reasonable assurance it conducted its reviews consistently. Moreover, documenting them will help USTR to administer any future exclusions and extensions. USTR evaluated each exclusion request on a case-by-case basis using several factors, including product availability outside of China and the potential economic harm of the tariffs. According to USTR officials, no one factor was essential to grant or deny a request. For example, USTR might grant a request that demonstrated the tariffs would cause severe economic harm even when the requested product was available outside of China. USTR denied about 46,000 requests (87 percent), primarily for the failure to show that the tariffs would cause severe economic harm to the requesters or other U.S. interests (see figure). Further, USTR did not extend 75 percent of the tariff exclusions it had granted. USTR's Primary Reasons for Denying Exclusion Requests for Section 301 Tariffs on Products from China, 2018-2020 Note: Totals may not sum due to rounding. Why GAO Did This Study In July 2018, USTR placed tariffs on certain products from China in response to an investigation that found certain trade acts, policies, and practices of China were unreasonable or discriminatory, and burden or restrict U.S. commerce. As of December 2020, the U.S. imposed tariffs on roughly $460 billion worth of Chinese imports under Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974, as amended. Because these tariffs could harm U.S. workers and manufacturers that rely on these imports, USTR developed a process to exclude some products from these additional tariffs. U.S. businesses and members of Congress have raised questions about the transparency and fairness of USTR's administration of this process. GAO was asked to review USTR's tariff exclusion program. This report (1) examines the processes USTR used to review Section 301 tariff exclusion requests and extensions and (2) describes how USTR evaluated those tariff exclusion requests and extensions, and the outcomes of its decisions. GAO analyzed USTR's public and internal documents relating to the exclusion and extension processes, including 16 randomly selected nongeneralizable case files, and data from USTR and the U.S. Census Bureau. GAO also interviewed agency officials.
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