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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    The rapid spread and magnitude of the COVID-19 pandemic have underscored the importance of having quality data, analyses, and models describing the potential trajectory of COVID-19 to help understand the effects of the disease in the U.S. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is using multiple surveillance systems to collect data on COVID-19 in the U.S. in collaboration with state, local, and academic and other partners. The data from these surveillance systems can be useful for understanding the disease, but decision makers and analysts must understand their limitations in order to interpret them properly. For example, surveillance data on the number of reported COVID-19 cases are incomplete for a number of reasons, and they are an undercount the true number of cases, according to CDC and others. There are multiple approaches to analyzing COVID-19 data that yield different insights. For example, some approaches can help compare the effects of the disease across population groups. Additional analytical approaches can help to address incomplete and inconsistent reporting of COVID-19 deaths as well. For example, analysts can examine the number of deaths beyond what would normally be expected in the absence of the pandemic. Examining higher-than-expected deaths from all causes helps to address limitations in the reporting of COVID-19 deaths because the number of total deaths is likely more accurate than the numbers of deaths from specific causes. The figure below shows actual deaths from the weeks ending January 1 through June 27, 2020, based on data from CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics, compared with the expected deaths based on prior years’ data. Deaths that exceeded this threshold starting in late March are considered excess deaths that may be related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Higher-Than-Expected Weekly Mortality for 2020, as of July 14, 2020 Analysts have used several forecasting models to predict the spread of COVID-19, and understanding these models requires understanding their purpose and limitations. For example, some models attempt to predict the effects of various interventions, whereas other models attempt to forecast the number of cases based on current data. At the beginning of an outbreak, such predictions are less likely to be accurate, but accuracy can improve as the disease becomes better understood. The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in significant loss of life and profoundly disrupted the U.S. economy and society, and the Congress has taken action to support a multifaceted federal response on an unprecedented scale. It is important for decision makers to understand the limitations of COVID-19 data, and the uses and limitations of various methods of analyzing and interpreting those data. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) includes a provision for GAO to, in general, conduct monitoring and oversight of the authorities and funding provided to address the COVID-19 pandemic and the effect of the pandemic on the health, economy, and public and private institutions of the U.S. This technology assessment examines (1) collection methods and limitations of COVID-19 surveillance data reported by CDC, (2) approaches for analyzing COVID-19 data, and (3) uses and limitations of forecast modeling for understanding of COVID-19. In conducting this assessment, GAO obtained publicly available information from CDC and state health departments, among other sources, and reviewed relevant peer reviewed and preprint (non-peer-reviewed) literature, as well as published technical data on specific models. For more information, contact Timothy M. Persons, PhD at (202) 512-6888 or PersonsT@gao.gov, SaraAnn Moessbauer at (202) 512-4943, or MoessbauerS@gao.gov, or Mary Denigan-Macauley, PhD at (202) 512-7114 or DeniganMacauleyM@gao.gov.
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    In U.S GAO News
    As of December 2019, at least 1,600 homes in Connecticut had confirmed pyrrhotite but the total number of affected homes is likely higher. According to one estimate, 4,000–6,000 more homes in Connecticut could develop crumbling foundations due to pyrrhotite. Affected homeowners may face total remediation costs of $150,000 or more and drops in property values of 25 percent or more. Connecticut established funding to provide homeowners with up to $175,000 towards the cost of foundation replacement, but affected homeowners are typically responsible for about one-third of total repair costs (which can include costs for replacing driveways and porches damaged during foundation replacement). Current funding is expected to assist 1,034 homeowners. Pyrrhotite Damage to a Basement and a Home Being Repaired Due to Pyrrhotite Damage GAO found that highly affected towns lost more than $1.6 million in tax revenue in 2018 due to lost assessment value of the houses affected by pyrrhotite, but town officials told us the losses have not yet significantly affected their budgets. However, officials were concerned that pyrrhotite could have long-term effects on their towns if the number of affected homes increased or homes were not remediated. GAO also found that homes located in highly affected towns and built when pyrrhotite-containing concrete was used sold for significantly less, on average, than similar homes in less-affected towns. Stakeholders told GAO that defaults and foreclosures related to pyrrhotite have been limited to date. Some federal funds have already been used for pyrrhotite testing and GAO identified eight additional federal programs that could be used to help mitigate financial impacts on homeowners. However, most of these programs have eligibility or funding restrictions that limit their potential for this purpose. Stakeholders with whom GAO spoke suggested other federal responses—in particular, declaring pyrrhotite damage a major disaster or establishing a federally backed insurance product. However, the Federal Emergency Management Agency determined that pyrrhotite damage did not qualify as a natural catastrophe, and a federally backed insurance program may not be feasible since it would serve a small population with high expected costs. Certain homes built in northeastern Connecticut and central Massachusetts between 1983 and 2015 have concrete foundations containing the mineral pyrrhotite. Pyrrhotite expands when it is exposed to water and oxygen and, over time, concrete foundations containing pyrrhotite may crack and crumble. The Explanatory Statement accompanying the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2019 included a provision for GAO to study the financial impact of pyrrhotite. This report describes (1) what is known about the number of homes affected by pyrrhotite in the region; (2) the financial impact of pyrrhotite on homeowners; (3) the financial effects on towns, local housing markets, and the federal government; and (4) federal options to mitigate pyrrhotite's financial impact on affected homeowners. GAO analyzed data from state, local, and private entities about the extent of pyrrhotite in foundations and associated costs, and federal actions taken in response to pyrrhotite. GAO also interviewed federal, state, and local officials; homeowners; and other stakeholders such as banks and real estate agents. For more information, contact John Pendleton at (202) 512-8678 or pendletonj@gao.gov.
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    In U.S GAO News
    The Defense Health Agency (DHA)—the agency within the Department of Defense (DOD) that administers DOD's health care program, TRICARE—has identified a number of value-based initiatives for potential implementation with civilian providers and hospitals under the TRICARE program. These initiatives aim to help DHA build a value-based health care delivery system, in which providers are rewarded for value of services provided instead of volume of services provided. For these initiatives, value is generally measured in terms of improved health outcomes, enhanced experience of care for the patient, and reduced health care costs over time. GAO found that DHA has identified 20 value-based initiatives, including a program that makes incentive payments for hospitals that meet certain quality metrics for maternity services and a program that promotes adherence to medication regimens by waiving co-payments, among others. According to DHA officials, the 20 initiatives include five that have been implemented (two complete, three underway); three that will be implemented in the future—two with anticipated 2020 start dates are currently on hold due to the department's need to focus on the response to the Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) pandemic and one that is expected to be implemented in January 2021; eight that are still under review, but no decisions have been made about whether and when they might be implemented; and four that were considered but will not be implemented. In fiscal year 2019, DOD offered health care services to approximately 9.6 million eligible beneficiaries worldwide through TRICARE, its regionally structured health care program. Beneficiaries may obtain health care services through DOD's direct care system of military hospitals and clinics or from its purchased care system of civilian providers. DOD contracts with private sector companies—referred to as managed care support contractors—to develop and maintain networks of civilian providers and perform other customer service functions for its purchased care system. The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017 (NDAA 2017) required DOD to develop and implement value-based incentive initiatives in its TRICARE contracts. The NDAA 2017 also included a provision that required GAO to review these initiatives. This correspondence describes the initiatives DHA has developed and the status of each, as of June 2020. To do this work, GAO interviewed knowledgeable DHA officials and analyzed available documentation on each initiative, including decision papers, congressional reports, and Federal Register notices. For more information, contact Debra A. Draper at (202) 512-7114 or draperd@gao.gov.
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  • Higher Education: Children’s Savings Account Programs Can Help Families Build Savings and Envision College
    In U.S GAO News
    Eighty-two Children's Savings Account (CSA) programs operated and had collectively enrolled about 700,000 children in 2019, according to survey data from the nonprofit organization Prosperity Now. These programs—operated by states, cities, and other organizations—use a variety of strategies to enroll families, especially those with lower incomes, and help them save and prepare for college. For example, CSA programs enroll families by partnering with trusted organizations (e.g., schools) or through automatic enrollment, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and CSA experts. In addition, these programs help families build savings once children are enrolled by, for example, providing initial deposits or financial education. While experts GAO interviewed said savings may be modest given lower-income families' and programs' limited resources, CSA programs also aim to help lower-income families prepare for college, such as by increasing financial knowledge. There is evidence that CSA program strategies have positive short-term effects on families, including those with lower incomes. These effects include increased CSA program enrollment and participation, amounts saved, and educational expectations, based on research GAO reviewed (see figure). For example, strategies such as automatically enrolling families and providing financial contributions (e.g., initial deposits) may help CSA programs reach more families and encourage saving. Several studies of a CSA program that used both these strategies found increases in the number of children enrolled and the amount saved by enrolled families. One study found that families who were enrolled for 7 years saved over four times more of their own money, on average, than families who were not enrolled—$261 compared to $59. When including financial contributions from the CSA program, enrolled families had about six times more total savings ($1,851) compared to other families ($323). Enrollment and participation in CSA programs may also increase families' educational expectations for their children. For example, a study found that parents with children enrolled in one CSA program were nearly twice as likely to expect their children to attend college. However, information on college enrollment and other long-term effects on families participating in CSA programs is limited because most of the children have not yet reached college age. Effects of CSA Program Strategies in Three Commonly Assessed Areas Rising college costs have outpaced federal grant aid and placed more of the financial burden on students and their families. CSA programs help families, especially lower-income families, save for college—and other postsecondary education—by providing financial contributions and possibly other supports. A Senate Appropriations Committee report included provisions for GAO to examine various aspects of college savings account programs and their effectiveness. This report examines (1) the number of CSA programs and how they use strategies to help families, especially lower-income families, save and prepare for college; and (2) what is known about the effects of these strategies on families, including lower-income families. GAO reviewed 2016–2019 annual CSA program survey data collected by the nonprofit Prosperity Now. GAO also analyzed CFPB documents and the findings of 33 peer-reviewed studies from 2010 through 2019—and one working paper from 2017—that met GAO's criteria for inclusion, for example, used data from the United States. In addition, GAO interviewed officials from CFPB, the Department of Education, and four organizations that have expertise on these programs. For more information, contact Melissa Emrey-Arras at (617) 788-0534 or emreyarrasm@gao.gov.
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  • Venezuela: Additional Tracking Could Aid Treasury’s Efforts to Mitigate Any Adverse Impacts U.S. Sanctions Might Have on Humanitarian Assistance
    In U.S GAO News
    The Venezuelan economy's performance has declined steadily for almost a decade and fallen steeply since the imposition of a series of U.S. sanctions starting in 2015. For example, the economy declined from negative 6.2 percent gross domestic product growth in 2015 to negative 35 percent in 2019 and negative 25 percent in 2020. The sanctions, particularly on the state oil company in 2019, likely contributed to the steeper decline of the Venezuelan economy, primarily by limiting revenue from oil production. However, mismanagement of Venezuela's state oil company and decreasing oil prices are among other factors that have also affected the economy's performance during this period. U.S. agencies have sought input from humanitarian organizations to identify the potential negative humanitarian consequences of sanctions related to Venezuela and taken steps to mitigate these issues. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and Department of State (State) have solicited input from U.S.-funded humanitarian organizations on challenges they face, including the impact of sanctions. The U.S. Department of the Treasury (Treasury) and State have also taken steps to mitigate negative consequences. For example, Treasury issued licenses permitting various types of humanitarian assistance transactions in Venezuela (see figure). Treasury also maintains a call center and email account through which organizations can receive assistance with compliance issues or other challenges related to sanctions. While Treasury officials told GAO they respond to individual inquiries, Treasury does not systematically track and analyze information from these inquiries to identify trends or recurrent issues. Without collection and analysis of this information, Treasury and its interagency partners may be limited in their ability to develop further actions to ensure that U.S. sanctions do not disrupt humanitarian assistance. U.S. Humanitarian Assistance Supplies for Venezuelans U.S. sanctions related to Venezuela have likely had a limited impact, if any, on the U.S. oil industry. Despite an overall lower supply of oil in the U.S. market from the loss of Venezuelan crude oil due to sanctions, crude oil and retail gasoline prices in the U.S. have not increased substantially. Many other factors in addition to the sanctions simultaneously affected the oil market and the price of crude oil and retail gasoline prices, including production cuts in January 2019 by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and decreased demand for energy during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to industry officials to whom GAO spoke, U.S. refineries have adjusted to these changes by shifting to alternative sources and types of crude oil. Venezuela has been experiencing an economic, political, and humanitarian crisis. The U.S. government has imposed sanctions on Venezuela's state oil company, government, and central bank, among others, in response to activities of the Venezuelan government and certain individuals. Treasury and the Department of State lead the implementation of the sanctions program, and USAID is primarily responsible for implementing humanitarian assistance for Venezuelans. GAO was asked to review U.S. sanctions related to Venezuela. This report examines: (1) how the Venezuelan economy performed before and since the imposition of sanctions in 2015; (2) the steps U.S. agencies have taken to identify and mitigate potential negative humanitarian consequences of sanctions related to Venezuela; and (3) what is known about the impact of U.S. sanctions related to Venezuela on the U.S. oil industry. GAO analyzed economic indicators, reviewed documents, interviewed agency officials, and spoke with representatives from selected humanitarian organizations and the U.S oil industry. GAO recommends that Treasury systematically track inquiries made to its call center and email account, including the specific sanctions program and the subject matter of the inquiry to identify trends and recurring issues. Treasury concurred with GAO's recommendation. For more information, contact Kimberly Gianopoulos at (202) 512-8612 or GianopoulosK@gao.gov.
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  • GAO Audits Involving DOD: Status of Efforts to Schedule and Hold Timely Entrance Conferences
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    GAO began 42 new audits that involved the Department of Defense (DOD) in the third quarter of fiscal year 2020. Of the 42 requested entrance conferences (i.e., initial meetings between agency officials and GAO staff) for those audits, DOD scheduled 41 within 14 days of notification and held all 42 entrance conferences within 30 days of notification. Scheduling was delayed for one entrance conference, which was scheduled 21 days after notification, because DOD and GAO were working to reach agreement on the primary action officer, which is the appropriate office or component within the department that coordinates DOD's response to the audit. The entrance conference was held 8 days after it was scheduled. Entrance conferences allow GAO to communicate its audit objectives and enable agencies to assign key personnel to support the audit work. GAO's agency protocols govern GAO's relationships with audited agencies. These protocols assist GAO in scheduling entrance conferences with key agency officials within 14 days of receiving notice of a new audit. The ability of the Congress to conduct effective oversight of federal agencies is enhanced through the timely completion of GAO audits. In past years, DOD experienced difficulty meeting the protocol target for the timely facilitation of entrance conferences. In Senate Report 116-48 accompanying a bill for the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020, the Senate Armed Services Committee included a provision for GAO to review DOD's scheduling and holding of entrance conferences. In this report, GAO's agency protocols govern GAO's relationships with audited agencies. These protocols assist GAO in scheduling entrance conferences with key agency officials within 14 days of receiving notice of a new audit. The ability of the Congress to conduct effective oversight of federal agencies is enhanced through the timely completion of GAO audits. In past years, DOD experienced difficulty meeting the protocol target for the timely facilitation of entrance conferences. In Senate Report 116-48 accompanying a bill for the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020, the Senate Armed Services Committee included a provision for GAO to review DOD's scheduling and holding of entrance conferences. In this report, GAO evaluates the extent to which DOD scheduled entrance conferences within 14 days of receiving notice of a new audit, consistent with GAO's agency protocols, and held those conferences within 30 days. This is the third of four quarterly reports that GAO will produce on this topic for fiscal year 2020. In the first two quarterly reports, GAO found that DOD had improved its ability to meet the protocol target. GAO analyzed data on GAO audits involving DOD and initiated in the third quarter of fiscal year 2020 (April 1, 2020, through June 30, 2020). Specifically, GAO identified the number of notification letters requesting entrance conferences that were sent to DOD during that time period. GAO determined the number of days between when DOD received the notification letter for each new audit and when DOD scheduled the entrance conference and assessed whether DOD scheduled entrance conferences within 14 days of notification, which is the time frame identified in GAO's agency protocols. GAO also determined the date that each requested entrance conference was held by collecting this information from the relevant GAO team for each audit and assessed whether DOD held entrance conferences for new audits within 30 days of notification, which was the time frame identified in the mandate for this review For more information, contact Elizabeth Field at (202) 512-2775 or Fielde1@gao.gov.
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    What GAO Found At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. returned, or repatriated, about 1,100 U.S. citizens from abroad and quarantined them domestically to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) experienced coordination and safety issues that put repatriates, HHS personnel, and nearby communities at risk. This occurred because HHS component agencies—the Administration for Children and Families, the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—did not follow plans or guidance delineating their roles and responsibilities for repatriating individuals during a pandemic—an event these agencies had never experienced. While they had general repatriation plans, there was disagreement as to whether the effort was in fact a repatriation. This led to fundamental problems for HHS agencies and their federal partners, including at the March Air Reserve Base quarantine facility in California where the first repatriated individuals were quarantined prior to widespread transmission of COVID-19 in the U.S. These problems included the following: Lack of clarity as to which agency was in charge when the first repatriation flight from Wuhan, China, arrived at the quarantine facility, which caused confusion among the HHS component agencies. Coordination issues among HHS component agencies resulted in component agencies operating independently of each other, and led to frustration and complications. HHS's delay in issuing its federal quarantine order, during which time a repatriate tried to leave the quarantine facility. HHS personnel's inconsistent use of personal protective equipment (PPE), and HHS officials' disagreement on which agency was responsible for managing infection prevention and control. An HHS official also directed personnel to remove their PPE as it created “bad optics,” according to an HHS report that examined the repatriation effort. The National Response Framework, a guide to how the U.S. responds to disasters and emergencies, instructs agencies to understand their respective roles and responsibilities, know what plans apply, and develop appropriate guidance for emergency responses. Until HHS revises or develops new plans that clarify agency roles and responsibilities during a repatriation in response to a pandemic, it will be unable to prevent the coordination and health and safety issues it experienced during the COVID-19 repatriation response in future pandemic emergencies. HHS also did not include repatriation in its pandemic planning exercises. As a result, agencies lacked experience deploying together to test repatriation plans during a pandemic, which contributed to serious coordination issues. GAO has previously reported that exercises play an important role in preparing for an incident by providing opportunities to test response plans and assess the clarity of roles and responsibilities. Until HHS conducts such exercises, it will be unable to test its repatriation plans during a pandemic and identify areas for improvement. Why GAO Did This Study HHS provides temporary assistance to U.S. citizens repatriated by the Department of State (State) from a foreign country because of destitution, illness, threat of war, or similar crises through the U.S. Repatriation Program. In January and February 2020, HHS assisted State in repatriating individuals from Wuhan, China, and the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Yokohama, Japan, to the U.S. HHS quarantined repatriates at five Department of Defense (DOD) installations to ensure they did not infect others with COVID-19. GAO was asked to examine HHS's COVID-19 repatriation efforts to ensure the health and safety of those involved in the response. This report examines HHS's coordination and management of its COVID-19 repatriation response. GAO reviewed relevant documentation from HHS, State, and DOD related to repatriation planning, including documentation on pandemic planning exercises. GAO also interviewed officials from HHS, State, and DOD.
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