Former Minister of Government of Bolivia, Owner of Florida-Based Company, and Three Others Charged in Bribery and Money Laundering Scheme

Two Bolivian nationals and three U.S. citizens were arrested on May 21, and May 22, in Florida and Georgia on criminal charges related to their alleged roles in a bribery and money laundering scheme. The former Minister of Government of Bolivia and another former Bolivian official are accused of receiving bribes paid by a U.S. company and individuals to secure a Bolivian government contract, and then using the U.S. financial system to launder those bribes.

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Agile software development is well suited for programs where the end goal is known, but specific details about their implementation may be refined along the way. Agile is implemented in different ways. For example, Scrum is a framework focused on teams, Scaled Agile Framework focuses on scaling Agile to larger groups, and DevOps extends the Agile principle of collaboration and unites the development and operation teams. Scrum, one of the most common Agile frameworks, organizes teams using defined roles, such as the product owner, who represents the customer, prioritizes work, and accepts completed software. In Scrum, development is broken down into timed iterations called sprints, where teams commit to complete specific requirements within a defined time frame. During a sprint, teams meet for daily stand-up meetings. At the end of a sprint, teams present the completed work to the product owner for acceptance. At a retrospective meeting following each sprint, team members discuss lessons learned and any changes needed to improve the process. Sprints allow for distinct, consistent, and measurable progress of prioritized software features. How mature is it? Organizations have used versions of incremental software development since the 1950s, with various groups creating Agile frameworks in the 1990s, including Scrum in 1995. In 2001, a group of software developers created the Agile Manifesto, which documents the guiding principles of Agile. Following this, Agile practitioners introduced new frameworks, such as Kanban, which optimizes work output by visualizing its flow. The Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA), enacted in 2014, includes a provision for the Office of Management and Budget to require the Chief Information Officers of covered agencies to certify that IT investments are adequately implementing incremental development. This development approach delivers capabilities more rapidly by dividing an investment into smaller parts. As a result, more agencies are now adopting an incremental, Agile, approach to software development. For example, in 2016, the Department of Homeland Security announced five Agile pilot programs. In 2020, at least 22 Department of Defense major defense acquisition programs reported using Agile development methods.  As the federal government continues to adopt Agile, effective oversight of these programs will be increasingly crucial. Our GAO Agile Assessment Guide, released in 2020, takes a closer look at the following categories of best practices: Agile adoption. This area focuses on team dynamics, program operations, and organization environments. One best practice for teams is to have repeatable processes in place such as continuous integration, which automates parts of development and testing. At the program operations level, staff should be appropriately trained in Agile methods. And at an organizational level, a best practice is to create a culture that supports Agile methods. Requirements development and management. Requirements—sometimes called user stories—are important in making sure the final product will function as intended. Best practices in this area include eliciting and prioritizing requirements and ensuring work meets those requirements. Acquisition strategy. Contractors may have a role in an Agile program in government. However, long timelines to award contracts and costly changes are major hurdles to executing Agile programs. One way to clear these hurdles is for organizations to create an integrated team with personnel from contracting, the program office, and software development. Clearly identifying team roles will alleviate bottlenecks in the development process. Figure 2. Different roles come together to make an Agile software development team. Program monitoring and control. Many Agile documents may be used to generate reliable cost and schedule estimates throughout a program’s life-cycle. Metrics. It is critical that metrics align with and prioritize organization-wide goals and objectives while simultaneously meeting customer needs. Such metrics in Agile include the number of features delivered to customers, the number of defects, and overall customer satisfaction.  Opportunities Flexibility. An Agile approach provides flexibility when customers’ needs change and as technology rapidly evolves. Risk reduction. Measuring progress during frequent iterations can reduce technical and programmatic risk. For example, routine retrospectives allow the team to reflect upon and improve the development process for the next iteration. Quicker deliveries. Through incremental releases, agencies can rapidly determine if newly produced software is meeting their needs. With Agile, these deliveries are typically within months, instead of alternative development methods, which can take years. Challenges GAO has previously reported on challenges the federal government faces in applying Agile methods; for the full report see GAO-12-681. Lack of organizational commitment. For example, organizations need to create a dedicated Agile team, which is a challenge when there is an insufficient number of staff, or when staff have several simultaneous duties. Resources needed to transition to Agile. An organization transitioning to Agile may need to invest in new tools, practices, and processes, which can be expensive and time consuming. Mistrust in iterative solutions. Customers who typically see a solution as a whole may be disappointed by the delivery of a small piece of functionality. Misaligned agency practices. Some agency practices, such as procurement, compliance reviews, federal reporting, and status tracking are not designed to support Agile software development. Policy and Context Questions In what ways can Agile help the federal government improve the management of IT acquisitions and operations, an area GAO has identified as high risk for the federal government? How can policymakers implement clear guidance about the use of Agile software development, such as reporting metrics, to better support Agile methods? How might resources need to shift to accommodate the adoption of Agile in federal agencies? What risks could those shifts pose? What updates to agency practices are worth pursuing to support Agile software development? For more information, contact Tim Persons at (202) 512-6888 or personst@gao.gov.
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  • Public Health Preparedness: Information on the Use of Medical Reserve Corps Volunteers during Emergencies
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    Almost all states have a network of health care volunteers—the Medical Reserve Corps—who can augment federal, state, and local capabilities in response to public health emergencies, such as those arising from wildfires and hurricanes, and infectious disease outbreaks. Having sufficient, trained personnel, such as these volunteers, is critical to a state's capability to respond and recover from public health emergencies. According to federal data, 48 states and the District of Columbia reported 102,767 health care volunteers in 838 Medical Reserve Corps units as of September 2019, with nurses making up 43 percent. Number of Medical Reserve Corps Volunteers by Type, as of September 2019 Note: These data illustrate 90 percent of total health care volunteers. The remaining five types volunteers each make up less than 5 percent of the total. Other Public Health Medical volunteers may include cardiovascular technicians, sonographers, and phlebotomists. Medical Reserve Corps volunteers in states included in GAO's review—Alabama, California, North Carolina, and New Mexico—were deployed in response to natural disasters in 2018 and 2019, migrants at the southern border in 2019, and COVID-19 in 2020. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) documentation shows these volunteers performed a variety of health care activities, such as providing medical services, setting up and providing support at shelters, and distributing medical supplies. Volunteers from these four states and others also participated in the response to COVID-19 by supporting testing sites, collecting specimens, and performing administrative tasks, such as data entry. For example, one unit deployed four volunteers a day for 3 days to work alongside nurses at a drive-through testing site. In addition to responding to public health emergencies, volunteers participated in preparedness activities, such as an initiative to train the public on how to respond to emergencies. HHS oversees the Medical Reserve Corps program and has assisted units in developing their volunteer capabilities. For example, HHS funded the development of a checklist of activities that should occur during volunteer deployment such as re-verifying medical credentials; provided training to new unit leaders on developing, managing, and sustaining Medical Reserve Corps units; and issued generally accepted practices, such as periodically re-evaluating volunteer recruitment procedures. The Medical Reserve Corps consists of health care volunteers—medical and public health professionals—who donate their time to help strengthen a response to public health emergencies and build community resilience. These volunteers prepare for and respond to public health emergencies, which may include natural disasters—such as hurricanes and wildfires—as well as disease outbreaks, whether intentional or natural. The Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness and Advancing Innovation Act of 2019 included a provision for GAO to review states' use of health care volunteers during public health emergencies. This report describes (1) the number and type of Medical Reserve Corps volunteers; (2) the types of public health emergencies volunteers have participated in; and (3) how HHS has assisted in developing volunteer capabilities. To conduct this work, GAO analyzed data reported to HHS as of September 2019; reviewed HHS documentation on four states' use of volunteers, which GAO selected based on population, number of volunteers, and event; and interviewed officials from HHS who oversee the Medical Reserve Corps program. GAO plans to further examine how states have used health care volunteers to respond to public health emergencies, including COVID-19, and any associated challenges to doing so in a future report. GAO provided a draft of this report to HHS. In response, HHS provided technical comments, which were incorporated as appropriate. For more information, contact Mary Denigan-Macauley at (202) 512-7114 or deniganmacauleym@gao.gov.
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  • K-12 Education: School Districts Need Better Information to Help Improve Access for People with Disabilities
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    Two-thirds of U.S. public school districts have schools with physical barriers that may limit access for people with disabilities, according to GAO's survey of district officials. Barriers, such as a lack of accessible door hardware and steep ramps, can make it challenging for students, teachers, and others with disabilities to use public school facilities (see fig.). In 55 schools across six states, the most common areas with barriers GAO observed were restrooms, interior doorways, and classrooms. GAO also observed barriers related to safety and security. For example, for security, some schools had installed double-door vestibules with limited maneuvering space that could trap people who use wheelchairs. Examples of Doorway and Auditorium Barriers GAO Observed in Schools Note: Barriers presented in this figure potentially limit physical access for people with disabilities, but taken alone, would not necessarily establish whether a legal violation has occurred. An estimated 70 percent of districts had large-scale renovations, small-scale upgrades, or accessibility evaluations planned in the next 3 calendar years, but frequently cited funding constraints as a challenge to these efforts. Districts also identified the need to prioritize projects that keep buildings operational, such as roofing and heating projects. In addition, GAO's survey, observations during site visits, and interviews with national disability groups revealed a tension between making safety and security upgrades and improving physical accessibility. The Department of Justice (Justice) has not provided technical assistance on physical accessibility in schools, and GAO's surveys indicate such help is needed. Justice has authority to provide information on interpreting the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), including for public schools, and it has provided technical assistance regarding other public facilities, such as stadiums. In addition, Justice, along with the Department of Education (Education) and other federal agencies, recently launched a new website on school safety, but it does not include specific information on how to improve accessibility of public school facilities or provide information on ADA requirements in the context of school safety upgrades. Without such information, federal agencies may miss opportunities to help ensure that people with disabilities have safe and secure access to public school facilities. National reports have raised concerns about the physical accessibility of public school facilities for people with disabilities. These facilities serve important roles as schools, voting locations, and emergency shelters, among other things. GAO was asked to examine the physical accessibility of public school facilities. This report examines the extent to which (1) school districts have school facilities with physical barriers that may limit access for people with disabilities, (2) districts plan to improve the accessibility of school facilities and the challenges they face, and (3) Justice and Education assist districts and states in improving school facilities' physical accessibility. GAO conducted a nationally representative survey of school districts; surveyed states and the District of Columbia; examined 55 schools across six states, selected for variation in size and other characteristics; reviewed relevant federal laws, regulations, and guidance; and interviewed federal, state, and school district officials, and national disability groups. GAO recommends that Justice work with Education to (1) provide information specific to accessibility of public school facilities and (2) provide information on federal accessibility requirements in the context of public school safety and security. Justice neither agreed nor disagreed with GAO's recommendations. For more information, contact Jacqueline M. Nowicki at (617) 788-0580 or nowickij@gao.gov.
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  • Three Charged with Illegally Exporting Goods to Iran
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  • Pregnant Women in DOJ Custody: U.S. Marshals Service and Bureau of Prisons Should Better Align Policies with National Guidelines
    In U.S GAO News
    GAO analyses of available data show that from calendar year 2017 through 2019, there were at least 1,220 pregnant women in U.S. Marshals Service (USMS) custody and 524 pregnant women in Bureau of Prisons (BOP) custody. Pregnant Women in USMS and BOP Custody: Number, Age, Race, and Length of Time in Custody from 2017 through 2019 aUSMS does not track pregnancy outcomes, so length of time in custody may include time when the women were not pregnant. For BOP, the length of time represents only the period of pregnancy. GAO analyses also show that pregnant women were held at a variety of facility types from 2017 through 2019. For example, pregnant women spent 68 percent of their time in USMS custody in non-federal facilities where USMS has an intergovernmental agreement. BOP data show that pregnant women spent 21 percent of their time in BOP custody while pregnant at Carswell—BOP's only female Federal Medical Center. While USMS and BOP both have policies that address the treatment and care of pregnant women, not all policies fully align with national guidance recommendations on 16 pregnancy-related care topics. For example, national guidance recommends specialized nutrition and when needed, mental health care. USMS policies fully align on three of 16 care topics and BOP policies fully align on eight of 16. By taking steps to more closely align agency standards and policies with national guidance as feasible, USMS and BOP would be better positioned to help ensure the health of pregnant women in their custody. USMS and BOP data show that the agencies provide a variety of medical care and special accommodations to pregnant women, and both agencies track the use of restraints. For example, USMS data show that women receive prenatal care and BOP data show that women receive prenatal vitamins and lower bunk assignments, among other things. However, USMS could do more to collect data on pregnant and postpartum women in their custody who are placed in restrictive housing. While USMS requests that facilities that hold USMS prisoners submit data on a regular basis indicating which prisoners were placed in restrictive housing, facilities are not required to indicate if any of these prisoners are pregnant or postpartum. In addition, USMS does not have a requirement for facilities to immediately notify USMS when such women are placed in restrictive housing. By requiring these notifications and data collection, USMS would be better positioned to ensure that facilities are complying with its USMS Detention Standards and Department of Justice (DOJ) guidance that state pregnant and postpartum women should not be placed in restrictive housing except in rare situations. Policymakers and advocacy groups have raised questions about the treatment of incarcerated pregnant women, including the use of restrictive housing—removal from the general prisoner population with the inability to leave the cell for the majority of the day—and restraints. Within DOJ, USMS is responsible for prisoners awaiting trial or sentencing. BOP is responsible for sentenced prisoners. GAO was asked to review issues related to pregnant women in USMS and BOP custody. This report examines (1) what DOJ data indicate about pregnant women in USMS and BOP custody; (2) the extent to which USMS and BOP policies align with national guidance on pregnancy-related care; and (3) what is known about the care provided and the extent to which USMS and BOP track when pregnant women are placed in restrictive housing or restraints. GAO analyzed available agency data from calendar years 2017 through 2019, which were the most recent data available; compared agency policies to relevant national guidance; and interviewed officials and a non-generalizable sample of prisoners who had been pregnant in USMS or BOP custody. GAO is making six recommendations, including that USMS and BOP take steps to more closely align their policies with national guidance on pregnancy-related care as feasible, and that USMS require facilities to collect data on and notify USMS when pregnant or postpartum women are placed in restrictive housing. DOJ concurred with our recommendations. For more information, contact Gretta L. Goodwin at (202) 512-8777 or goodwing@gao.gov.
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  • Science & Tech Spotlight: Vaccine Safety
    In U.S GAO News
    Why this Matters Safe vaccines are critical to fighting diseases, from polio to COVID-19. Research shows that the protection provided by U.S. licensed vaccines outweighs their potential risks. However, misinformation and unjustified safety concerns can cause people to delay or refuse vaccination, which may increase preventable deaths and prolong negative social and economic impacts. The Science What is it? A vaccine is generally considered safe when the benefits of protecting an individual from disease outweigh the risks from potential side effects (fig. 1). The most common side effects stem from the body's immune reaction and include swelling at the injection site, fever, and aches. Figure 1. Symptoms of polio and side effects of the polio vaccine. A vaccine is generally considered safe if its benefits (preventing disease) outweigh its risks (side effects). In rare cases, some vaccines may cause more severe side effects. For example, the vaccine for rotavirus—a childhood illness that can cause severe diarrhea, dehydration, and even death—can cause intestinal blockage in one in 100,000 recipients. However, the vaccine is still administered because this very rare side effect is outweighed by the vaccine's benefits: it saves lives and prevents an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 childhood hospitalizations in the U.S. each year. The two messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines authorized for COVID-19—a disease that contributed to more than 415,000 American deaths between January 2020 and January 2021—can cause severe allergic reactions. However, early safety reporting found that these reactions have been extremely rare, with only about five cases per 1 million recipients, according to data from January 2021 reports by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In general, side effects from vaccines are less acceptable to the public than side effects from treatments given to people who already have a disease. What is known? Vaccine developers assess safety from early research, through laboratory and animal testing, and even after the vaccine is in use (fig. 2). Researchers may rely on previous studies to inform future vaccine trials. For example, safety information from preclinical trials of mRNA flu vaccine candidates in 2017 allowed for the acceleration of mRNA COVID-19 vaccine development. Vaccine candidates shown to be safe in these preclinical trials can proceed to clinical trials in humans. In the U.S., clinical trials generally proceed through three phases of testing involving increasing numbers of volunteers: dozens in phase 1 to thousands in phase 3. Although data may be collected over years, most common side effects are identified in the first 2 months after vaccination in clinical trials. After reviewing safety and other data from vaccine studies, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) may license a vaccine to be marketed in the U.S. There are also programs to expedite—but not bypass—development and review processes, such as a priority review designation, which shortens FDA’s goal review time from 10 to 6 months. Safety monitoring continues after licensing. For example, health officials are required to report certain adverse events—such as heart problems—following vaccination, in order to help identify potential long-term or rare side effects that were not seen in clinical trials and may or may not be associated with the vaccine. Figure 2. Vaccine safety is assessed at every stage: development through post-licensure. Following a declared emergency, FDA can also issue emergency use authorizations (EUA) to allow temporary use of unlicensed vaccines if there is evidence that known and potential benefits of the vaccine outweigh known and potential risks, among other criteria. As of January 2021, two COVID-19 vaccines had received EUAs, after their efficacy and short-term safety were assessed through large clinical trials. However, developers must continue safety monitoring and meet other requirements if they intend to apply for FDA licensure to continue distribution of these vaccines after the emergency period has ended. What are the knowledge gaps? One knowledge gap that can remain after clinical trials is whether side effects or other adverse events may occur in certain groups. For example, because clinical trials usually exclude certain populations, such as people who are pregnant or have existing medical conditions, data on potential adverse events related to specific populations may not be understood until vaccines are widely administered. In addition, it can be difficult to determine the safety of new vaccines if outbreaks end suddenly. For example, vaccine safety studies were hindered during the 2014-2015 Ebola epidemic when a large increase in the number of cases was followed by a sharp decrease. This disrupted the clinical trials of Ebola vaccine candidates, because the trials require many infected and non-infected people. Furthermore, a lack of understanding and/or misinformation about the steps taken to ensure the safety of vaccines hinders accurate public knowledge about safety concerns, which may cause people to delay or refuse vaccination. This resulting hesitancy may, in turn, increase deaths, social harm, and economic damage. Opportunities Continuing and, where necessary, improving existing vaccine safety practices offers the following opportunities to society: Herd immunity. Widespread immunity in a population, acquired in large part through safe and effective vaccines, can slow the spread of infection and protect those most vulnerable. Health care improvements. Vaccinations can reduce the burden on the health care system by reducing severe symptoms that require individuals to seek treatment. Eradication. Safe vaccination programs, such as those combatting smallpox, may eliminate diseases to the point where transmission no longer occurs. Challenges There are a number of challenges to ensuring safe vaccines: Public confidence. Vaccine hesitancy, in part due to misinformation or historic unethical human experimentation, decreases participation in clinical trials, impeding identification of side effects across individuals with different racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Mutating viruses. Some viruses, such as those that cause the flu or COVID-19, may mutate rapidly and thus may require new or updated vaccines, for which ongoing safety monitoring is important. Long-term and rare effects. Exceedingly rare or long-term effects may not be identified until after vaccines have been widely administered. Further study is needed to detect any such effects and confirm they are truly associated with the vaccine. Policy Context & Questions What steps can policymakers take to improve public trust and understanding of the process of assessing vaccine safety? How can policymakers convey the social importance of vaccines to protect the general public and those who are most vulnerable? How can policymakers leverage available resources to support ongoing vaccine development and post-licensure safety monitoring? For more information, contact Karen Howard at (202) 512-6888 or HowardK@gao.gov.
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  • Fair Labor Standards Act: Observations on the Effects of the Home Care Rule
    In U.S GAO News
    In response to the Department of Labor's Home Care Rule—which extended Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) minimum wage and overtime protections to more home care workers—some states made changes in their Medicaid programs, according to studies and GAO interviews with stakeholders and selected state officials. Many stakeholders said the rule led some states to limit home care workers' hours in their Medicaid programs to avoid overtime costs. For example, in Oregon, newly hired home care workers provided through Medicaid were generally limited to 40 hours per week, according to state documentation. Some states also budgeted additional funds for overtime pay. In addition, according to a few stakeholder groups, some states changed service delivery in their Medicaid programs, for example, by discontinuing services such as live-in care. In contrast, several stakeholders said some states did not make any major changes to their Medicaid programs' home care services. Provider agencies, workers, and consumers experienced changes after the Home Care Rule took effect. Specifically, some provider agencies restricted workers' hours to limit overtime costs, though this can result in the need to hire more workers, leading to increased costs of recruiting, training, and scheduling, according to several stakeholders. GAO's analysis of national survey data found that home care workers, when compared to occupations with similar education and training requirements, were more likely to work full-time but did not earn significantly higher earnings following the Home Care Rule (see figure). Many stakeholders GAO spoke with described ongoing challenges consumers face in obtaining home care services, such as difficulty finding workers to hire. Estimated Median Weekly Earnings of Employed Workers, 2010 through 2019 Note: The margins of error at the 95 percent confidence level are within plus or minus 7.2 percent of the estimate itself. Employment in home care is projected to grow nearly 40 percent over the next decade to meet demand from an increasing population of older adults and people with disabilities. Home care workers help those who need assistance with activities of daily living such as dressing, eating, or bathing. State Medicaid programs may allow home care for eligible individuals as an alternative to institutional care. The Department of Labor's (DOL) Home Care Rule, which went into effect in 2015, extended FLSA protections to more home care workers. GAO was asked to review the implementation and effects of the Home Care Rule. This report examines what is known about (1) changes states made to their Medicaid programs in response to the Home Care Rule; and (2) the Home Care Rule's effect on home care provider agencies, workers, and consumers. To address these objectives, GAO analyzed 2010 through 2019 national survey data on workers' hours and wages; interviewed stakeholders from 15 organizations that represent the different groups affected, DOL officials, and home care program officials from three states selected based on variation in their Medicaid programs and minimum wage levels; and reviewed studies on state strategies to implement the Home Care Rule. For more information, contact Melissa Emrey-Arras at (617) 788-0534 or emreyarrasm@gao.gov.
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  • Medicaid: Information on the Use of Electronic Asset Verification to Determine Eligibility for Selected Beneficiaries
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found Individuals who receive assistance from the federal Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program may also become eligible for Medicaid. SSI provides cash assistance to eligible individuals who are over age 65, blind, or disabled; and who have limited resources (i.e., assets) and income. Medicaid programs in 42 states and the District of Columbia use the SSI asset limit of $2,000 for an individual or $3,000 for a married couple. Medicaid programs in the remaining eight states may set an asset limit that differs from the current SSI asset limit. The Social Security Administration (SSA), which administers the SSI program, and state Medicaid programs electronically verify the assets of these individuals when determining financial eligibility: In the 42 states and the District of Columbia that use the SSI asset limit, SSA is the entity that verifies applicants' assets. SSA has two data sources to detect assets among SSI beneficiaries. The first data source is the Access to Financial Institutions initiative. This initiative verifies reported bank accounts and can detect potential undisclosed accounts from financial institutions within geographic proximity of an SSI recipient's residence. The second data source is Non-home Real Property, which uses a commercial data source to help investigate potential ownership of real property other than a primary residence. In the eight states that may set their own asset limits, the state's Medicaid program must verify Medicaid eligibility for SSI recipients using an electronic asset verification system (AVS). An AVS provides a portal between state eligibility systems and banks or other third-party systems with electronic access to financial information. Once a state has an AVS in place, state eligibility workers can submit a request through the portal to perform an asset check for a Medicaid applicant. The request is sent to different financial institutions. A vendor gathers the information from the financial institutions and returns it to the state, and eligibility workers use the information to make an eligibility determination. Some states also use their AVS to check on applicants' property information, which may come from commercial data sources. Why GAO Did This Study GAO was asked to review the use of electronic asset verification to determine eligibility for selected Medicaid beneficiaries. This report provides an overview of what is known about how state Medicaid programs verify assets of applicants who are eligible because they receive SSI, and how SSA verifies assets of SSI applicants, among other issues. To describe what is known about how state Medicaid programs and SSA verify applicants' assets, GAO reviewed its prior work, as well as related research by other organizations. GAO also obtained input from officials from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and SSA; and reviewed relevant federal laws, regulations, and guidance. The Department of Health and Human Services and SSA reviewed a draft of this report and provided technical comments, which GAO incorporated as appropriate. For more information, contact Carolyn L. Yocom at (202) 512-7114 or yocomc@gao.gov.
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  • Financial Stability: Agencies Have Not Found Leveraged Lending to Significantly Threaten Stability but Remain Cautious Amid Pandemic
    In U.S GAO News
    In the years before the economic shock from the COVID-19 pandemic, the Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC) and others assessed the potential risks to financial stability that leveraged loans and collateralized loan obligation (CLO) securities may pose. Generally, leveraged loans are those made to businesses with poor credit and high debt, and CLO securities are backed by these loans. FSOC and others found that riskier borrower profiles and looser underwriting standards left leveraged lending market participants vulnerable to losses in the event of a downturn. After the COVID-19 shock in March 2020, loans suffered record downgrades and increased defaults, but the highest-rated CLO securities remained resilient. Although regulators monitoring the effects of the pandemic remain cautious, as of September 2020, they had not found that leveraged lending presented significant threats to financial stability. Based on regulators' assessments, leveraged lending activities had not contributed significantly to the distress of any large financial entity whose failure could threaten financial stability. Large banks' strong capital positions have allowed them to manage their leveraged lending exposures, and the exposure of insurers and other investors also appeared manageable. Mutual funds experienced redemptions by investors but were able to meet them in part by selling leveraged loan holdings. While this may have put downward pressure on already-distressed loan prices, based on regulators' assessments, distressed leveraged loan prices did not pose a potential threat to financial stability. Present-day CLO securities appear to pose less of a risk to financial stability than did similar securities during the 2007–2009 financial crisis, according to regulators and market participants. For example, CLO securities have better investor protections, are more insulated from market swings, and are not widely tied to other risky, complex instruments. FSOC monitors leveraged-lending-related risks primarily through its monthly Systemic Risk Committee meetings, but opportunities exist to enhance FSOC's abilities to respond to financial stability threats. FSOC identified leveraged lending activities as a source of potential risk to financial stability before the COVID-19 shock and recommended continued monitoring and analysis. However, FSOC does not conduct tabletop or similar scenario-based exercises where participants discuss roles and responses to hypothetical emergency scenarios. As a result, FSOC is missing an opportunity to enhance preparedness and test members' coordinated response to financial stability risks. Further, as GAO reported in 2016, FSOC does not generally have clear authority to address broader risks that are not specific to a particular financial entity, such as risks from leveraged lending. GAO recommended that Congress consider better aligning FSOC's authorities with its mission to respond to systemic risks, but Congress had not done so as of September 2020. GAO maintains that changes such as broader designation authority would help FSOC respond to risks from activities that involve many regulators, such as leveraged lending. The market for institutional leveraged loans grew from an estimated $0.5 trillion in 2010 to $1.2 trillion in 2019, fueled largely by investor demand for CLO securities. Some observers and regulators have drawn comparisons to the pre-2008 subprime mortgage market, noting that loan origination and securitization may similarly spread risks to the financial system. These fears are being tested by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has significantly affected leveraged businesses. This report examines assessments by regulators, FSOC, and others—both before and after the COVID-19 shock to the economy—of the potential risks to financial stability stemming from leveraged lending activities, and the extent to which FSOC monitors and responds to risks from broad-based activities like leveraged lending, among other objectives. GAO examined agency and private data on market size and investor exposures; reviewed agency, industry, and international reports; and interviewed federal financial regulators and industry participants. GAO recommends that the Secretary of the Treasury, as Chairperson of FSOC, conduct scenario-based exercises intended to evaluate capabilities for responding to crises. GAO also reiterates its 2016 recommendation (GAO-16-175) that Congress consider legislative changes to align FSOC's authorities with its mission. FSOC neither agreed nor disagreed with the recommendation, but said that it would take further actions if it determined necessary. For more information, contact Michael E. Clements at (202) 512-8678 or ClementsM@gao.gov.
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