Department Press Briefing – May 14, 2021

Jalina Porter, Principal Deputy Spokesperson

2:09 p.m. EST

MS PORTER: Hello. Good afternoon. Thank you so much for joining us this Friday. I have three quick updates at the top, and then we’ll resume taking of questions.

On behalf of the Department of State, I want to wish Eid greetings to Muslims in the United States and around the world who celebrated Eid al-Fitr which marked the end of Ramadan yesterday. During this holy month of fasting and reflections, many Muslims made special efforts to contribute to the building a safer, more just, and equitable world. Here at the Department, I would like to recognize the contributions of Muslim colleagues advancing a broad range of our national interests both at home and abroad.

I’d like to highlight Mosaic, a new Employee Affinity Group that was recognized this past January. Mosaic fosters community and promotes professional development for department employees who are Muslim or are interested in cultures of traditions of Muslim communities. We look forward to working with Mosaic and other employee affinity groups to realize our collective vision of a 21st Century workforce that draws on our rich diversity of all Americans. Eid Mubarak.

Next, we are deeply troubled by reports that Russian authorities have frozen Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s bank account. This is Russia’s latest attempt to suppress independent media and deny the Russian people access to objective news.

We will continue to unequivocally support RFE/RL, and its affiliates, and to stand up for freedom of expression including members of the press.

The people of Russia deserve access to a wide range of information and opinions and a government that respects freedom of expression and keeping with Russian’s international obligations and OSCE commitments.

Finally, as you’re aware, flags at all U.S. State Departments facilities will be at half-staff on Saturday, May 15, 2021 by presidential proclamation to recognize Peace Officers Memorial Day and National Police Week. We honor the U.S. and partner-nation law enforcement professionals who have died in the line of serving – service protecting American diplomacy all around the world.

Here at the department, we remember four Diplomatic Security service special agents who gave their lives, as well as their 34 host nation law enforcement colleagues from around the globe who have died in service of diplomatic security. They are honored on the Diplomatic Security Memorial in Arlington, Virginia.

This Peace Officers Memorial Day, we reflect upon the men and women who protect us and who made the ultimate sacrifice. Their watch may have ended, but our gratitude for their service will not. And with that, I’ll give it a few more minutes for you to file in the queue and start taking your questions.

OPERATOR: And once again on the phone lines, if you do have a question press 1 and then 0. Please do not start your question until I state that your line is open. Once again, you may queue up by pressing 1 and then 0. Please do not start your question until I state your line is open.

MS PORTER: Let’s go to Shaun Tandon.

OPERATOR: One moment. And Shaun, your line is open.

QUESTION: Great. Thank you. Thanks, Jalina. I’d like to ask you about the latest in the Middle East. To begin with, can you give us an update on Envoy Hady Amr so what he’s doing, when does he expect to have meetings there, and what his goal will be? And give an assessment of where things stand right now. There have been calls for de-escalation. We’ve seen renewed violence. We saw the operation last night in Gaza from the Israelis. Is this consistent with the calls for de-escalation that we’ve seen from the United States? Thank you.

MS PORTER: Let me just start off by saying that we remain deeply concerned about the current violence, and we are working towards achieving a sustainable calm. We are – when it comes to your question about Deputy Assistant Secretary Amr, he is in Israel and the West Bank to engage with senior Israeli and Palestinian officials. As you know that Amr has decades of experience in this issue. His trip is a part of an ongoing high level engagements by senior U.S. officials on these critical issues. But while he’s there, he’ll reinforce our message that we have stressed in many senior level engagements with the parties and other stakeholders this past week, which of course namely achieving a sustainable calm.

Let’s go to Michele Kelemen.

OPERATOR: One moment. And Michele, your line is open.

QUESTION: Thank you. I want to go back to something you mentioned at the top about RFE/RL. The actions against RFE/RL happened a day after the Secretary spoke to Lavrov. I wonder if that came up in the conversation. Is the fact that Russia’s continuing this crackdown a sign that U.S.-Russia relations are heading in the wrong direction? And also if you could kind of clarify what’s happening with the situation at the embassy and Russia’s decision to put off but still force you not to have any foreign national employees?

MS PORTER: Thanks, Michelle. So as far as your first question on the conversation I have nothing additional to announce or read out from that. And to your second question on – I believe you asked about embassy personnel. At this point, we won’t discuss any internal staffing of our – of individuals who are there, but anything else we will certainly get back to you on.

Let’s go to Laura Kelly.

OPERATOR: One moment. And Laura, your line is open.

QUESTION: Thank you. Happy Friday, Jalina. My question is: Is the State Department concerned about claims by the Armenian Government that Azerbaijan has launched an incursion into their territory? How does this charge impact U.S. military and security assistance to Azerbaijan, and are you considering revoking the waiver of Section 907 and halt security assistance to Azerbaijan?

MS PORTER: I have nothing to announce when it comes to security assistance, but what I can say more broadly is that we’re closely monitoring the situation along the demarked border between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Military movements in disputed territories are irresponsible, and they’re also unnecessarily provocative. And of course we’ve seen the reports of some withdrawal and would welcome that, if confirmed, but we expect that Azerbaijan to pull back all forces immediately and cease further provocation.

We’ve also urged both sides to approach demarcation issues through discussion as well as negotiation.

Let’s go to Matt Lee.

OPERATOR: One moment. And Matt, your line is open.

QUESTION: Hello. A very Happy Friday to you all. I just have – who has Hady Amr met with so far in Israel and in the West Bank? And secondly, is Rob Malley back or is the (inaudible) delegation still in Vienna? What’s going on there? Thank you.

MS PORTER: So Deputy Assistant Secretary Amr is meeting with senior officials. We have nothing further to announce on the specifics on those engagements. And we’ll have to take that question back on Rob Malley.

Let’s go to Rosiland Jordan.

OPERATOR: One moment. Rosiland, your line is open.

QUESTION: Thank you. Hi, Jalina. I need to follow up on Matt and Shaun’s questions about DASD Amr’s trip to Israel and the territory. Is his work being buttressed by phone calls, contacts, by the Secretary, or the official in charge of Near Eastern Affairs for the time being? And is this administration concerned that Prime Minister Netanyahu may be taking advantage of the current crisis to try to bolster his internal political standing? We’ve already seen the efforts to try to form a government under Yair Lapid called off, and now there is pressure coming from some of the prime minister’s supporters suggesting that perhaps he should be allowed to stay in office because of the existential threat to Israel’s existence.

MS PORTER: Thank you, Rosiland. So to answer your first question, there have been several rounds of engagements, including phone calls from Secretary Blinken to his counterpart, from obviously the President as well. And the fact that Deputy Assistant Secretary Amr is there, he’s there in full support of Secretary Blinken meeting and engaging with senior Israeli and Palestinian officials to make sure that we are achieving a sustainable calm.

If you still have Rosiland on the line, operator, can you repeat your second question.

OPERATOR: And Rosiland, you would have to queue up again by pressing 1 and then 0. One moment, please. And Rosiland, your line is open.

QUESTION: Thanks so much. Yes, Jalina. My second question is: Is the Biden administration worried or concerned or outraged or pick whatever adjective you want that Prime Minister Netanyahu may be using this crisis in order to bolster his domestic political standing? There is no formal government. He’s in essence a prime – a lame duck prime minister right now. The efforts for Yair Lapid to form a government have been suspended because of the violence, and now Naftali Bennett, who is one of the prime minister’s supporters, is suggesting that perhaps Netanyahu should just simply stay in office open ended regardless of the last election’s results because of this existential threat to Israel’s security.

MS PORTER: Well, I don’t have anything to offer specifically on your comment to Prime Minister Netanyahu. But as far as being concerned, I will say that we are deeply concerned about the current violence, and of course are working to achieving a sustainable calm. And this is what we’re encouraging from our side.

Of course, we’ve been very clear that Hamas’s ongoing rocket attacks into civilian areas of Israel are completely unacceptable and that they must cease. Of course, Israel has the right to defend itself from these rocket attacks, and both Israelis and Palestinians – I will just leave it there and kind of just reiterate that we are concerned. It remains that we’re deeply concerned about the violence that’s happening right now.

Let’s go to Jiha Ham.

OPERATOR: One moment. Jiha, your line is open.

QUESTION: Hey, Jalina. Thank you. As the administration now has the completed version of their policy towards North Korea, I have to ask you this question again. Will there be a Secretary announcement of what the detailed North Korean policy will be? If so, when will it be? Also, could you tell us if the State Department has reached out to the North Korean Government through the diplomatic channels as to convey the results of their policy review? If so, was there any response from them? Thank you.

MS PORTER: Thank you, Jiha. So we won’t disclose any private diplomatic correspondences, and we certainly don’t have a timeline to announce the specifics of a review. But of course we have completed this review in a way that was very through and very rigorous, and of course our goal remains the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. When we have any updates to share outside of that, we will be certainly – certain to share them through these channels.

Let’s go to Pranshu Verma.

OPERATOR: One moment. And I’m sorry, what was that name again?

MS PORTER: Pranshu Verma.

OPERATOR: All right. Thank you. One moment. And Pranshu, did you still have a question? If so, press 1 and then 0. And right now I’m not seeing Pranshu in queue.

MS PORTER: Okay. Let’s go to Kylie Atwood.

OPERATOR: One moment. Kylie, your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks. I had a quick question about the Russian diplomats, the Russian officials that the Biden administration expelled last month. The date that the Biden administration announced that they were being expelled was April 15th, so tomorrow would mark the 30 days that they had to leave the country. And I’m wondering if the Biden administration has received confirmation that they have left or if that confirmation will be coming tomorrow? Thanks.

MS PORTER: Thanks, Kylie. We don’t have any announcements to make on that at this time. But we’ll be happy to take that back for you.

Let’s go to Bryant Harris.

OPERATOR: One moment. And Bryant, your line is open.

QUESTION: Hey, thank you. So are there – is the Biden administration doing anything specifically to discourage Israel from a potential ground invasion in Gaza? And moving to Ethiopia, a few sources on Capitol Hill are saying that the administration is reviewing all options deal with the Tigray crisis. Does that include potential Global Magnitsky sanctions on Ethiopian and Eritrean officials, if Eritrea continues to refuse to withdraw from Tigray? Thank you.

MS PORTER: I’ll take your first question first. So the United States will continue to remain engaged with senior Israeli officials as well as Palestinian leadership and other partners in the region. And of course, we’re continuing to – continuing at an intensive pace of high-level calls and meetings by senior-level U.S. officials with other senior officials from Israel, the Palestinian Authority, their partners, as well as other stakeholders. And of course, that includes the visit by our Deputy Assistant Secretary Hady Amr to the region.

And if you’re still on, if you can re-ask your question. I believe it was on Ethiopia.

Okay. I’m not sure if we have him back in the queue. But from what I gathered from his question is we certainly won’t preview sanctions from here, but of course we are – remain concerned about the humanitarian crisis in the Tigray region as other reports of any human rights abuses and atrocities. And we are working with international partners to address the crisis in Tigray, and that includes through action with the UN and other relevant bodies.

Let’s go to Rich Edson.

OPERATOR: One moment. And Rich, your line is open.

QUESTION: Thanks very much. Hi, Jalina. The President said yesterday there was a strong reason to believe that the criminals who carried out the Colonial Pipeline attack are living in Russia. What responsibility does the United States believe the Russian Government has here in punishing the actors or preventing attacks like this from happening?

MS PORTER: Thanks, Rich. Well, I certainly wouldn’t want to get ahead of President Biden and would have to direct that question back to our colleagues at the White House.

Let’s go to Nadia Bilbassy.

OPERATOR: One moment. And Nadia, your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi, Jalina. Thank you for doing this. The chief (inaudible) to the Israeli army just said that they have targets to finish in Gaza, actually quoting what he said. And the administration, whether it’s the State Department or the President, who just released a statement saying that he wants to achieve sustainable calm. So would you say that Hady Amr’s visit is mission impossible if he is not able to achieve ceasefire? And what is it exactly that asked to do? What would you call a success of his visit? Is it coming back to Washington and declaring that actually both sides have a ceasefire?

And also, as you know – sorry, it’s a long question – but as you know, Egypt is a mediator with Hamas. So we don’t expect him obviously to speak with Hamas, but why he’s not going to Cairo as well? Is it just enough to talk by phone? Thank you so much.

MS PORTER: Thanks, Nadia. So, I mean, we won’t go into specific details from here or say that there’s any specific measure of success. And of course, we’ll underscore that Deputy Assistant Secretary Amr is in the region, of course, at the full confidence of Secretary Blinken. Of course he’s there meeting with senior officials, senior Israeli and Palestinian officials, to achieve sustainable calm and to achieve sustainable peace as well. And after that, we have nothing to add from here. But his time in the area is well spent, and we appreciate him being there.

Let’s take this final question from Tejinder Singh.

OPERATOR: One moment. Was that Tenji?

MS PORTER: Tejinder Singh.

OPERATOR: One moment. And Tejinder, your line is open. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you. I just have a quick follow-up to the ongoing subject of Israel and Palestinians. According to an AP report, an Egyptian diplomatic team is on the ground in Israel, and after meeting Hamas people and then crossing by land route, to explore ceasefire. The question is: Are the U.S. diplomats in touch with them? What’s your take on the Egyptian role and efforts?

MS PORTER: Thank you for your question. So we are actively engaging Egypt as well as other regional partners to work towards achieving a sustainable calm in the region.

Thank you all for joining today, and that concludes today’s briefing.

(The briefing was concluded at 2:36 p.m.)

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    Vivint Smart Home Inc. (Vivint), based in Provo, Utah, has agreed to pay the United States $3.2 million to resolve allegations under the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act of 1989 (FIRREA) that Vivint employees made false statements to secure financing for customers’ purchases of Vivint’s home monitoring products, the Justice Department announced today. FIRREA imposes civil penalties on any person or entity that violates certain predicate federal statutes.
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  • Georgia CPA Indicted for Promoting Syndicated Conservation Easement Tax Scheme Involving Fraudulent Charitable Deductions
    In Crime News
    A federal grand jury sitting in Atlanta, Georgia, returned an indictment today charging an Atlanta certified public accountant with one count of conspiracy to defraud the United States; 24 counts of wire fraud; 32 counts of aiding or assisting in the preparation of false federal tax returns; and five counts of filing false federal tax returns relating to a wide-ranging, abusive tax shelter scheme. 
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  • Keynote Remarks at the 5th Annual Papua New Guinea Women’s Forum
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  • Justice Department Sues Yale University for Illegal Discrimination Practices in Undergraduate Admissions
    In Crime News
    The Justice Department today filed suit against Yale University for race and national origin discrimination. The complaint alleges that Yale discriminated against applicants to Yale College on the grounds of race and national origin, and that Yale’s discrimination imposes undue and unlawful penalties on racially-disfavored applicants, including in particular most Asian and White applicants.
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  • Additions of Cuban Military-Owned Companies to the Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons List
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  • Canadian National Charged with Alien Smuggling Conspiracy and Attempting to Bring Aliens to the United States
    In Crime News
    Cooperation efforts between United States and Turks and Caicos Islands law enforcement authorities culminated in today’s extradition to the United States of a Canadian national who has been charged with alien smuggling offenses.
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  • Hospital Researcher Sentenced to Prison for Conspiring to Steal Trade Secrets, Sell Them in China
    In Crime News
    A former Dublin, Ohio, woman was sentenced in U.S. District Court today to 30 months in prison for conspiring to steal exosome-related trade secrets concerning the research, identification and treatment of a range of pediatric medical conditions. Li Chen, 47, also conspired to commit wire fraud. Chen admitted in her guilty plea in July 2020 to stealing scientific trade secrets related to exosomes and exosome isolation from Nationwide Children’s Hospital’s Research Institute for her own personal financial gain.
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  • Justice Department Issues Favorable Business Review Letter to Institute of International Finance for Sovereign Debt Information Sharing Principles
    In Crime News
    The Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division announced today that it has completed its review of the proposal by the Institute of International Finance (IIF) to promulgate voluntary guidelines, called the Principles for Debt Transparency (Principles), allowing for public disclosure of information regarding the issuance of sovereign debt. Based on the representations in IIF’s letter request, including its description of certain safeguards, the department has concluded that the principles are unlikely to harm competition. Therefore, the department does not presently intend to challenge IIF’s proposed principles.
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  • Indian Health Service: Actions Needed to Improve Oversight of Federal Facilities’ Decision-Making About the Use of Funds
    In U.S GAO News
    The Indian Health Service's (IHS) oversight of federally operated health care facilities' decision-making process about the use of funds has been limited and inconsistent. Funds include those from appropriations, as well as payments from federal programs, such as Medicaid and from private insurance, for care provided by IHS to American Indians and Alaska Natives (AI/AN). While some oversight functions are performed at IHS headquarters, the agency has delegated primary responsibility for the oversight of health care facilities' decision-making about the use of funds to its area offices. Area office officials said the oversight they provide has generally included (1) reviewing facilities' scope of services, and (2) reviewing facilities' proposed expenditures. However, GAO's review found that this oversight was limited and inconsistent across IHS area offices, in part, due to a lack of consistent agency-wide processes. While IHS officials from all nine area offices GAO interviewed said they reviewed facilities' scope of services and coordinated with tribes when doing so, none reported systematically reviewing the extent to which their facilities' services were meeting local health needs, such as by incorporating the results of community health assessments. Such assessments can involve the collection and assessment of data, as well as the input of local community members and leaders to identify and prioritize community needs. These assessments can be used by facilities to assess their resources and identify priorities for facility investment. While IHS has identified such assessments as a priority, the agency does not require federally operated facilities to conduct such assessments or require the area offices to use them as they review facilities' scope of services. To ensure that facilities are effectively managing their resources, IHS has a process to guide its review of facilities' proposed construction projects that cost at least $25,000. However, IHS does not have a similar process to guide its oversight of other key proposed expenditures, such as those involving the purchase of major medical equipment, the hiring of providers, or the expansion of services. Specifically, GAO found limitations and inconsistencies with respect to requiring a documented justification for proposed expenditures; documenting the review and approval of decisions; and conducting an impact assessment on patient access, cost, and quality of care. The limitations and inconsistencies that GAO found in IHS's oversight are driven by the lack of consistent oversight processes across the area offices. Without establishing a systematic oversight process to compare federally operated facilities' current services to population needs, and to guide the review of facilities' proposed expenditures, IHS cannot ensure that its facilities are identifying and investing in projects to meet the greatest community needs, and therefore that federal resources are being maximized to best serve the AI/AN population. IHS, an agency of the Department of Health and Human Services, provides care to AI/AN populations through a system of federally operated and tribally operated health care facilities. AI/AN have experienced long standing problems accessing needed health care services. GAO has previously reported that IHS has not been able to pay for all eligible health care services; however, the resources available to federally operated facilities have recently grown. This report assesses IHS oversight of federal health care facilities' decision-making about the use of funds. GAO reviewed IHS policies and documents; and interviewed IHS officials from headquarters, nine area offices, and three federally operated facilities (two hospitals and one health clinic). GAO recommends that IHS develop processes to guide area offices in (1) systematically assessing how federally operated facilities will effectively meet the needs of their patient populations, and (2) reviewing federal facilities' spending proposals. HHS concurred with these recommendations. For more information, contact Jessica Farb at (202) 512-7114 or farbj@gao.gov.
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  • Drug Misuse: Agencies Have Not Fully Identified How Grants That Can Support Drug Prevention Education Programs Contribute to National Goals
    In U.S GAO News
    The Department of Education (Education), the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) manage six key federal grant programs that can support drug prevention activities in schools. The flexibility of these grants supports a variety of drug prevention education programs. The agencies generally monitor grantees' compliance with grant requirements through periodic reporting. The aim of the National Drug Control Strategy (Strategy) is to reduce drug misuse, but HHS, and ONDCP have not fully defined how several key grant programs support the Strategy. ONDCP's guidance directs agencies to report, for each grant program, performance measures that relate to the Strategy's goals. However, some performance measures for several programs did not relate to drug prevention, did not link directly to the Strategy's prevention goals, or were not reported at all. For example: A $372 million set-aside for HHS's Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment Block Grant program must be used on drug prevention, but HHS did not link the program's performance measures to the Strategy's prevention education goal.   ONDCP did not report on any performance measures in the Strategy or document how its $100 million Drug-Free Communities Support program contributes to achieving specific goals in the Strategy. GAO also found that the approximately $10 million grants to states component of Education's School Climate Transformation Grant program could more fully provide performance information related to the Strategy's prevention education goal. Fully understanding these programs' contributions to the goals of the National Drug Control Strategy could help Congress and the public better understand and assess how the nation's significant investments in drug prevention education programs help address the drug crisis. Most people who develop a substance use disorder begin using substances as adolescents. To reach adolescents, drug prevention programs are frequently provided in schools. Education, HHS, and ONDCP manage most federal programs that support school-based drug prevention activities. This report (1) describes how Education, HHS, and ONDCP support drug prevention activities in schools, and monitor those efforts and (2) examines the extent to which these agencies identify how their prevention activities support the National Drug Control Strategy. GAO reviewed agency documentation, the 2019 and 2020 National Drug Control Strategy documents which ONDCP identified as being most relevant to our review including the fiscal year 2019 drug control budget, ONDCP guidance, relevant federal laws, and GAO's prior work on attributes of successful performance measures that can help achieve agency goals. GAO also interviewed federal and state officials. GAO is making four recommendations, including that Education, HHS, and ONDCP clarify how grants that can include drug prevention education programs support related goals of the National Drug Control Strategy. HHS and ONCP agreed with the recommendation and Education partially concurred, saying it would explore collecting and reporting related performance data. For more information, contact Jacqueline M. Nowicki at (617) 788-0580 or nowickij@gao.gov.
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  • COVID-19: Brief Update on Initial Federal Response to the Pandemic
    In U.S GAO News
    As of August 20, 2020, the U.S. had over 5.5 million cumulative reported cases of COVID-19, and 158,000 reported deaths, according to federal agencies. The country also continues to experience serious economic repercussions and turmoil. Four relief laws, including the CARES Act, were enacted between March and July 2020 to provide appropriations for the response to COVID-19. The CARES Act includes a provision for GAO to report bimonthly on its ongoing monitoring and oversight efforts related to COVID-19. This second report examines federal spending on the COVID-19 response; indicators for monitoring public health and the economy; and the status of matters for congressional consideration and recommendations from GAO’s June 2020 report (GAO-20-625). GAO reviewed data through June 30, 2020 (the latest available) from USAspending.gov, a government website with data from government agencies. GAO also obtained, directly from the agencies, spending data, as of July 31, 2020, for the six largest spending areas, to the extent available. To develop the public health indicators, GAO reviewed research and federal guidance. To understand economic developments, GAO reviewed data from federal statistical agencies, the Federal Reserve, and Bloomberg Terminal, as well as economic research. To update the status of matters for congressional consideration and recommendations, GAO reviewed agency and congressional actions. In response to the national public health and economic threats caused by COVID-19, four relief laws making appropriations of about $2.6 trillion had been enacted as of July 31, 2020. Overall, federal obligations and expenditures government-wide of these COVID-19 relief funds totaled $1.5 trillion and $1.3 trillion, respectively, as of June 30, 2020. GAO also obtained preliminary data for six major spending areas as of July 31, 2020 (see table). COVID-19 Relief Appropriations, Obligations, and Expenditures for Six Major Spending Areas, as of July 2020 Spending area Appropriationsa ($ billions) Preliminary obligationsb ($ billions) Preliminary expendituresb ($ billions) Business Loan Programs 687.3 538.1 522.2c Economic Stabilization and Assistance to Distressed Sectors 500.0 30.4 19.2c Unemployment Insurance 376.4 301.1 296.8 Economic Impact Payments 282.0 273.5 273.5 Public Health and Social Services Emergency Fund 231.7 129.6 95.9 Coronavirus Relief Fund 150.0 149.5 149.5 Total for six spending areas 2,227.4 1,422.2 1,357.0 Source: GAO analysis of data from the Department of the Treasury, USAspending.gov, and applicable agencies. | GAO-20-708 aCOVID-19 relief appropriations reflect amounts appropriated under the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2020, Pub. L. No. 116-123, 134 Stat. 146; Families First Coronavirus Response Act, Pub. L. No. 116-127, 134 Stat. 178 (2020); CARES Act, Pub. L. No. 116-136, 134 Stat. 281 (2020); and Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act, Pub. L. No. 116-139, 134 Stat. 620 (2020). These data are based on appropriations warrant information provided by the Department of the Treasury as of July 31, 2020. These amounts could increase in the future for programs with indefinite appropriations, which are appropriations that, at the time of enactment, are for an unspecified amount. In addition, this table does not represent transfers of funds that federal agencies may make between appropriation accounts or transfers of funds they may make to other agencies. bObligations and expenditures data for July 2020 are based on preliminary data reported by applicable agencies. cThese expenditures relate to the loan subsidy costs (the loan’s estimated long-term costs to the United States government). The CARES Act included a provision for GAO to assess the impact of the federal response on public health and the economy. The following are examples of health care and economic indicators that GAO is monitoring. Health care. GAO’s indicators are intended to assess the nation’s immediate response to COVID-19 as it first took hold, gauge its recovery from the effects of the pandemic over the longer term, and determine the nation’s level of preparedness for future pandemics, involving subsequent waves of either COVID-19 or other infectious diseases. For example, to assess the sufficiency of testing—a potential indicator of the system’s response and recovery—GAO suggests monitoring the proportion of tests in a given population that are positive for infection. A higher positivity rate can indicate that testing is not sufficiently widespread to find all cases. That is higher positivity rates can indicate that testing has focused on those most likely to be infected and seeking testing because they have symptoms, and may not be detecting COVID-19 cases among individuals with no symptoms. Although there is no agreed-upon threshold for the test positivity rate, governments should target low positivity rates. The World Health Organization recommends a test positivity rate threshold of less than 5 percent over a 14-day period. As of August 12, 2020, 12 states and the District of Columbia had met this threshold (38 states had not). Resolve to Save Lives, another organization, recommends a threshold of less than 3 percent over a 7-day period, and 11 states and the District of Columbia had met this threshold (39 states had not) as of August 12, 2020. GAO also suggests monitoring mortality from all causes compared to historical norms as an indicator of the pandemic’s broad effect on health care outcomes. Mortality rates have tended to be consistent from year to year. This allows an estimation of how much mortality rose with the onset of the pandemic, and provides a baseline by which to judge a return to pre-COVID levels. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, about 125,000 more people died from all causes January 1–June 13 than would normally be expected (see figure). CDC Data on Higher-Than-Expected Weekly Mortality, January 1 through June 13, 2020 Note: The figure shows the number of deaths from all causes in a given week that exceeded the upper bound threshold of expected deaths calculated by CDC on the basis of variation in mortality experienced in prior years. Changes in the observed numbers of deaths in recent weeks should be interpreted cautiously as this figure relies on provisional data that are generally less complete in recent weeks. Data were accessed on July 16, 2020. Economy. GAO updated information on a number of indicators to facilitate ongoing and consistent monitoring of areas of the economy supported by the federal pandemic response, in particular the COVID-19 relief laws. These indicators suggest that economic conditions—including for workers, small businesses, and corporations—have improved modestly in recent months but remain much weaker than prior to the pandemic. In June and July initial regular unemployment insurance (UI) claims filed weekly averaged roughly 1.4 million (see figure), which was six and a half times higher than average weekly claims in 2019, but claims have decreased substantially since mid-March, falling to 971,000 in the week ending August 8, 2020. Increasing infections in some states and orders to once again close or limit certain businesses are likely to pose additional challenges for potentially fragile economic improvements, especially in affected sectors, such as the leisure and hospitality sector. National Weekly Initial Unemployment Insurance Claims, January 2019–July 2020 Note: See figure 5 in the report. As GAO reported in June, consistent with the urgency of responding to serious and widespread health issues and economic disruptions, federal agencies gave priority to moving swiftly where possible to distribute funds and implement new programs designed to help small businesses and the newly unemployed, for example. However, such urgency required certain tradeoffs in achieving transparency and accountability goals. To make mid-course corrections, GAO made three recommendations to federal agencies: To reduce the potential for duplicate payments from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP)—a program that provides guaranteed loans through lenders to small businesses—and unemployment insurance, GAO recommended that the Department of Labor (DOL), in consultation with the Small Business Administration (SBA) and the Department of the Treasury (Treasury), immediately provide information to state unemployment agencies that specifically addresses PPP loans, and the risk of improper unemployment insurance payments. DOL issued guidance on August 12, 2020, that, among other things, clarified that individuals working full-time and being paid through PPP are not eligible for UI. To recoup economic impact payments totaling more than $1.6 billion sent to decedents, GAO recommended that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) consider cost-effective options for notifying ineligible recipients of economic impact payments how to return payments. IRS has taken steps to address this recommendation. According to a Treasury official, nearly 70 percent of the payments sent to decedents have been recovered. However, GAO was unable to verify that amount before finalizing work on this report. GAO is working with Treasury to determine the number of payments sent to decedents that have been recovered. Treasury was considering sending letters to request the return of remaining outstanding payments but has not moved forward with this effort because, according to Treasury, Congress is considering legislation that would clarify or change payment eligibility requirements. To reduce the potential for fraud and ensure program integrity, GAO recommended that SBA develop and implement plans to identify and respond to risks in PPP to ensure program integrity, achieve program effectiveness, and address potential fraud. SBA has begun developing oversight plans for PPP but has not yet finalized or implemented them. In addition, to improve the government’s response efforts, GAO suggested three matters for congressional consideration: GAO urged Congress to take legislative action to require the Department of Transportation (DOT) to work with relevant agencies and stakeholders, such as HHS, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and international organizations, to develop a national aviation-preparedness plan to ensure safeguards are in place to limit the spread of communicable disease threats from abroad, while also minimizing any unnecessary interference with travel and trade. In early July 2020, DOT collaborated with HHS and DHS to issue guidance to airports and airlines for implementing measures to mitigate the public health risks associated with COVID-19, but it has not developed a preparedness plan for future communicable disease threats. DOT has maintained that HHS and DHS should lead such planning efforts as they are responsible for communicable disease response and preparedness planning, respectively. In June 2020, HHS stated that it is not in a position to develop a national aviation-preparedness plan as it does not have primary jurisdiction over the entire aviation sector or the relevant transportation expertise. In May 2020, DHS stated that it had reviewed its existing plans for pandemic preparedness and response activities and determined it is not best situated to develop a national aviation-preparedness plan. Without such a plan, the U.S. will not be as prepared to minimize and quickly respond to future communicable disease events. GAO also urged Congress to amend the Social Security Act to explicitly allow the Social Security Administration (SSA) to share its full death data with Treasury for data matching to help prevent payments to ineligible individuals. In June 2020, the Senate passed S.4104, referred to as the Stopping Improper Payments to Deceased People Act. If enacted, the bill would allow SSA to share these data with Treasury's Bureau of the Fiscal Service to avoid paying deceased individuals. Finally, GAO urged Congress to use GAO's Federal Medical Assistance Percentage (FMAP) formula for any future changes to the FMAP—the statutory formula according to which the federal government matches states' spending for Medicaid services—during the current or any future economic downturn. Congress has taken no action thus far on this issue. GAO incorporated technical comments received the Departments of Labor, Commerce, Health and Human Services, Transportation, and the Treasury; the Federal Reserve; Office of Management and Budget; and Internal Revenue Service. The Small Business Administration commented that GAO did not include information on actions taken and controls related to its loan forgiveness program or its plans for loan reviews. GAO plans to provide more information on these topics in its next CARES Act report. For more information, contact A. Nicole Clowers at (202) 512-7114 or clowersa@gao.gov.
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    In Crime News
    WASHINGTON – The Justice Department released a report today on the need for Congress to update and improve the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), the 74-year-old statute setting forth the procedures agencies must follow when regulating individuals, businesses, non-profits, and state and local government entities. The report, entitled Modernizing the Administrative Procedure Act, discusses how the administrative state has developed in ways not foreseen by the APA in 1946, how the APA might be legislatively improved, and how this Administration’s improvements to agencies’ regulatory processes could inform modernizing the APA. The Justice Department, which significantly shaped the original APA, hopes that the ideas and insights discussed in the report will encourage and inform much needed action by Congress to modernize the APA.
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  • Small Business Contracting: Better Documentation and Reporting Needed on Procurement Center Representatives
    In U.S GAO News
    The Small Business Administration (SBA) does not maintain complete documentation to support data on the activities of procurement center representatives (PCR), which is information used to oversee PCRs and assess their performance. PCRs are responsible for helping small businesses gain access to federal contracting and subcontracting opportunities—for example, by making set-aside recommendations to federal agency contracting officers. SBA area offices generate a monthly report that summarizes data on PCRs' activities and accomplishments, and SBA procedures require PCRs to maintain these reports and the supporting documentation. GAO found that they do not consistently do either. According to SBA officials, in some cases the supporting documentation, which PCRs store on their individual computers or in their offices, either was destroyed or was not maintained after PCRs left their positions. Officials told GAO that SBA recently implemented a new database and established a policy requiring the monthly reports to be maintained in the database. However, SBA has not established a centralized means of maintaining the supporting documentation. A central repository for PCRs to store their supporting documentation would provide greater assurance that the documentation is maintained as required and help SBA verify the accuracy of the data PCRs report on their activities. SBA assigns PCRs to buying activities, divisions in federal agencies that purchase goods and services based on geographic coverage and other factors. Specifically, PCRs are assigned within one of six regional areas to ensure geographic coverage, at specific federal agencies, and at buying activities that have significant opportunities for small business contracting. However, SBA has not submitted required reports to Congress on its rationale for assigning PCRs to cover buying activities. The Small Business Act, as amended, requires that SBA submit a report (1) identifying each area for which SBA has assigned a PCR, (2) explaining why SBA selected the areas for assignment, and (3) describing the activities performed by PCRs. SBA was required to submit the first report to Congress by December 26, 2010, and subsequent reports every 3 years thereafter. SBA officials told GAO they were not aware of the reporting requirement. As a result, Congress lacks the information these reports were intended to provide, information that could be useful for its oversight of PCRs. The Small Business Act establishes tools to enhance procurement opportunities for small businesses, such as set-asides and requirements that large contractors set goals for using small business subcontractors. SBA's PCRs advocate for the inclusion of small businesses during the procurement process. GAO was asked to examine how PCRs help small businesses gain access to federal contracting and subcontracting opportunities. This report addresses, among other objectives, (1) documentation SBA maintains on the activities of PCRs and (2) how SBA assigns PCRs to cover buying activities and its requirement to report to Congress on these assignments. GAO reviewed SBA policies and procedures, data on PCR assignments, and selected data reported by PCRs and related documentation. GAO also interviewed agency officials. GAO recommends that SBA (1) develop a central repository for PCRs to store the supporting documentation for the data they report on their activities and (2) ensure that it submits required reports to Congress on PCRs' assignments and activities. SBA concurred with both recommendations. For more information, contact William B. Shear at (202) 512-8678 or shearw@gao.gov.
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  • Veterans Affairs: Ongoing Financial Management System Modernization Program Would Benefit from Improved Cost and Schedule Estimating
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Financial Management Business Transformation (FMBT) program has begun implementing the Integrated Financial and Acquisition Management System (iFAMS), with the first deployment of certain capabilities at the National Cemetery Administration (NCA) on November 9, 2020. FMBT program officials identified various challenges, such as FMBT program funding shortfalls, which represent the difference between VA's original requirement and the President's budget request, and coordination with other major initiatives. VA has taken various steps to address its challenges. For example, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, VA postponed the initial NCA deployment 4 months and converted planning, training, and testing activities to virtual events. In addition, the FMBT program and Veterans Health Administration (VHA) worked together to address the FMBT program funding shortfall by postponing iFAMS implementation at VHA for at least 2 years to coordinate with the implementation of a new logistics system. Following information technology (IT) management best practices on major transformation efforts, such as the FMBT program, can help build a foundation for ensuring responsibility, accountability, and transparency. VA has generally met such practices for program governance, Agile project management, and testing and defect management. However, it has not fully met certain best practices for developing and managing cost and schedule estimates. As a result, its estimates were not reliable. Specifically, VA's estimates substantially met one, and partially or minimally met three of the four characteristics associated with reliable cost and schedule estimates, respectively. For example, VA minimally met the “credible” characteristic associated with reliable cost estimates, in part, because it did not compare its cost estimate to an independently developed estimate. GAO Assessment of VA Cost and Schedule Estimates against Best Practice Characteristics Cost estimate characteristic Assessment of cost estimate Schedule estimate characteristic Assessment of schedule estimate Comprehensive Partially met Comprehensive Partially met Well-documented Substantially met Well-constructed Partially met Accurate Partially met Credible Partially met Credible Minimally met Controlled Substantially met Legend: substantially met = VA provided evidence that satisfies a large portion of the criterion; partially met = VA provided evidence that satisfies about one-half of the criterion; minimally met = VA provided evidence that satisfies a small portion of the criterion Source: GAO assessment of the Department of Veterans Affairs Financial Management Business Transformation program documentation. | GAO-21-227 Reliable cost and schedule estimates provide a road map for project execution and are critical elements to delivering large-scale IT systems. Without reliable estimates, VA management may not have the information necessary for informed decision-making. Further, following cost and schedule best practices helps minimize the risk of cost overruns and schedule delays and would better position the FMBT program for effective and successful implementation on future deployments. Why GAO Did This Study VA's core financial system is approximately 30 years old and is not integrated with other relevant IT systems, resulting in inefficient operations and complex work-arounds. The FMBT program is VA's current effort and third attempt to replace its aging financial and acquisition systems with one integrated system. The first two attempts were unsuccessful after years of development and hundreds of millions of dollars in cost. GAO was asked to review the progress of the FMBT program. This report (1) describes the status of the FMBT program, including steps VA has taken to address challenges it has identified, and (2) examines the extent to which VA has followed certain IT management best practices. GAO summarized FMBT program risks and challenges that VA identified, reviewed FMBT program documentation and compared it with relevant guidance and best practices, and interviewed cognizant VA officials.
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  • Priority Open Recommendations: Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found In April 2020, GAO identified three priority recommendations for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). Since then, FDIC has implemented two of those recommendations. As of April 2021, the remaining open priority recommendation for FDIC involves the following area: Collaborating with other financial regulators to communicate with banks that have third-party relationships with financial technology lenders about using alternative data in underwriting. FDIC's continued attention to this issue could improve its ability to more effectively oversee risks to consumers and the safety and soundness of the U.S. banking system. We are not adding any additional priority recommendations this year. Why GAO Did This Study Priority open recommendations are GAO recommendations that warrant priority attention from heads of key departments or agencies because their implementation could save large amounts of money; improve congressional or executive branch decision-making on major issues; eliminate mismanagement, fraud, and abuse; or ensure that programs comply with laws and funds are legally spent, among other benefits. Since 2015 GAO has sent letters to selected agencies to highlight the importance of implementing such recommendations. For more information, contact Daniel Garcia-Diaz at 202-512-8678 or garciadiazd@gao.gov.
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    A New Jersey man who controlled two U.S.-based companies pleaded guilty today for paying a total of $100,000 in bribes to a Korean government official in order to obtain and retain contracts with the Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA), a state-owned and state-controlled agency within the Republic of Korea’s Ministry of National Defense.
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  • Behavioral Health: Patient Access, Provider Claims Payment, and the Effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found GAO found that there have been longstanding concerns about the availability of behavioral health treatment, particularly for low-income individuals. According to a review of federal data, one potential barrier to accessing treatment has been shortages of qualified behavioral health professionals, particularly in rural areas. Stakeholders that GAO interviewed—officials from the National Council for Behavioral Health (NCBH) and from hospital associations and insurance regulators in four states—cited additional contributing factors such as provider reimbursement rates and health system capacity. Additionally, recent reports from Pennsylvania and Oregon further documented longstanding problems with meeting the need for behavioral health services in their states. Evidence collected during the pandemic suggests the prevalence of behavioral health conditions has increased, while access to in-person behavioral health services has decreased: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) survey data collected from April 2020 through February 2021 found that the percentage of adults reporting symptoms of anxiety or depression averaged 38 percent. In comparison, using similar questions, CDC found that about 11 percent of U.S. adults reported experiencing these symptoms from January to June 2019. An analysis of CDC data found that the share of emergency department visits for drug overdoses and suicide attempts were 36 and 26 percent higher, respectively, for the period of mid-March through mid-October 2020 compared to the same time period in 2019. In a February 2021 survey of its members, NCBH found that in the 3 months preceding the survey, about two-thirds of the member organizations surveyed reported demand for their services increasing and having to cancel or reschedule patient appointments or turn patients away. The survey also found that during the pandemic, 27 percent of member organizations reported laying off employees, 45 percent reported closing some programs, and 35 percent decreased the hours for staff. Officials GAO interviewed from provider organizations offered anecdotal examples of problems with payments for behavioral health services, including examples suggesting that denials and delays were more common for these services than they were for medical/surgical services. However, most officials were not aware of published data that could confirm their concerns, and data from reports from two states on claims denials either did not support their concerns or were inconclusive. In addition, a report in one state that examined mental health parity—requirements that behavioral health benefits are not more restrictive than medical/surgical benefits—found that the rate of complaints associated with behavioral health services was notably lower than those for medical/surgical services. The lack of available data confirming stakeholder concerns could be related to potential challenges consumers and providers face in identifying and reporting mental health parity violations, as previously reported by GAO. Specifically, in 2019, GAO found that complaints were not a reliable indicator of such violations, because consumers may not know about parity requirements or may have privacy concerns related to submitting a complaint. GAO recommended that the federal agencies involved in the oversight of mental health parity requirements evaluate the effectiveness of their oversight efforts. As of March 2021, the agencies had not yet implemented this recommendation. Why GAO Did This Study Behavioral health conditions, which include mental health and substance use disorders, affect a substantial number of adults in the United States. For example, in 2019, an estimated 52 million adults in the United States were reported to have a mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder, and 20 million people aged 12 or older had a substance use disorder. Experts have expressed concerns that the incidence of behavioral health conditions would increase as a result of stressors associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. Even before the pandemic, longstanding questions have been raised about whether coverage or claims for behavioral health services are denied or delayed at higher rates than those for other health services. GAO was asked to examine several issues about the demand for behavioral health services, as well as coverage and payment for these services. GAO examined (1) what is known about the need for and availability of behavioral health services, and how these have changed during the COVID-19 pandemic; and (2) what issues selected stakeholders identified regarding the payment of claims for behavioral health services. GAO reviewed survey data and other relevant analyses focused on the need for and availability of behavioral health services prior to and during the COVID-19 pandemic. GAO also reviewed reports from two states that compared claims for behavioral health services with those of other health services; interviewed officials from NCBH; and interviewed officials from hospital associations and insurance regulators in Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Virginia. For more information, contact John E. Dicken at 202-512-7114 or dickenj@gao.gov.
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