National Science Foundation: COVID-19 Affected Ongoing Construction of Major Facilities Projects

What GAO Found

Since GAO’s April 2020 report on the status of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) major facilities projects, the Large Hadron Collider High Luminosity Upgrade program began construction, and it along with the four other major facilities projects in construction (see figure), have weathered schedule delays associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. To partially account for increased costs associated with the pandemic, such as the cost of paying project staff while work is paused, NSF has authorized $38.9 million in total project cost increases to the award recipients constructing three of the five projects:

  • $18.9 million for the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope,
  • $10.0 million for the Vera C. Rubin Observatory, and
  • $10.0 million for Regional Class Research Vessels.

Because the pandemic is ongoing and its full effects are not yet known, NSF expects to make further adjustments to the cost and schedule of all five major projects in construction. Design work on an additional major facility project continued without significant interruption from the pandemic. Further, NSF made awards to begin the agency’s first three mid-scale research infrastructure projects.

National Science Foundation Major Facilities Projects in Construction

NSF has fully implemented GAO’s prior recommendation on information sharing among award recipients and has drafted guidance or taken other steps towards addressing GAO’s three remaining recommendations. To enhance information sharing among award recipients, NSF added a section to its terms and conditions in its major facilities agreements that encourages awardees to share information among awardees and participate in a knowledge management program.

Why GAO Did This Study

NSF supports the design, construction, and operations of science and engineering research infrastructure such as telescopes and research vessels. These projects include major facilities that cost over $100 million to construct or acquire, and mid-scale research infrastructure projects. Over the past 5 fiscal years, NSF has received over $1 billion in appropriations for these projects. Prior GAO reports reviewed NSF’s oversight of the projects, its cost estimating and schedule policies, and the project management expertise of its oversight workforce.

Senate Report 115-275, Senate Report 114-239, and House Report 114-605 included provisions for GAO to review and report annually on projects funded from NSF’s Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction account. This report, the fourth, examines (1) the cost and schedule performance of NSF’s ongoing major facilities and mid-scale research infrastructure projects and (2) the extent to which NSF has implemented prior GAO recommendations related to its management of major facilities. GAO reviewed NSF and award recipient documents for the projects. GAO examined policies and procedures to identify efforts to implement recommendations and interviewed NSF officials for clarifying information.

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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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