Priority Open Recommendation: Securities and Exchange Commission

What GAO Found

In April 2020, GAO identified two priority recommendations for the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Since then, SEC has implemented one of these recommendations, and the other remains open. The open priority recommendation relates to performance management for SEC employees. Specifically, it would help enhance the credibility of SEC’s performance management system among its staff, including the ratings, recognition, or feedback that they receive as a result. SEC’s continued attention to this issue could lead to significant improvements in government operations. We are not adding any additional priority recommendations this year. 

Why GAO Did This Study

Priority open recommendations are the GAO recommendations that warrant priority attention from heads of key departments or agencies because their implementation could save large amounts of money; improve congressional and/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 Michael Clements at (202) 512-8678 or clementsm@gao.gov.

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    The ambient air quality monitoring system is a national asset that provides standardized information for implementing the Clean Air Act and protecting public health. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and state and local agencies cooperatively manage the system, with each playing different roles in design, operation, oversight, and funding. For example, EPA establishes minimum requirements for the system, and state and local agencies operate the monitors and report data to EPA. Officials from EPA and selected state and local agencies identified challenges related to sustaining the monitoring system. For example, they said that infrastructure is aging while annual EPA funding for state and local air quality management grants, which cover monitoring, has decreased by about 20 percent since 2004 after adjusting for inflation (see fig.). GAO found inconsistencies in how EPA regions have addressed these challenges. GAO's prior work has identified key characteristics of asset management, such as identifying needed resources and using quality data to manage infrastructure risks, which can help organizations optimize limited resources. By developing an asset management framework that includes such characteristics, EPA could better target limited resources toward the highest priorities for consistently sustaining the system. Annual Inflation-Adjusted EPA Funding for State and Local Air Quality Management Grants Air quality managers, researchers, and the public need additional information so they can better understand and address the health risks from air pollution, according to GAO's review of literature and interviews GAO conducted. These needs include additional information on (1) air toxics to understand health risks in key locations such as near industrial facilities; and (2) how to use low-cost sensors to provide real-time, local-scale air quality information. EPA and state and local agencies face persistent challenges meeting such air quality information needs, including challenges in understanding the performance of low-cost sensors. GAO illustrated this challenge by collecting air quality data from low-cost sensors and finding variability in their performance. EPA has strategies aimed at better meeting the additional air quality information needs of managers, researchers, and the public, but the strategies are outdated and incomplete. For example, they do not clearly define roles for meeting additional information needs. GAO's prior work on asset management suggests that a more strategic approach could help EPA modernize the system to better meet the additional information needs. By developing a modernization plan that aligns with leading practices for strategic planning and risk management, such as establishing modernization goals and roles, EPA could better ensure that the system meets the additional information needs of air quality managers, researchers, and the public and is positioned to protect public health. The national ambient air quality monitoring system shows that the United States has made progress in reducing air pollution but that risks to public health and the environment continue in certain locations. The system consists of sites that measure air pollution levels around fixed locations across the country using specific methods. Since the system began in the 1970s, air quality concerns have changed—such as increased concern about the health effects of air toxics. GAO was asked to evaluate the national air quality monitoring system. This report examines the role of the system and how it is managed, challenges in managing the system and actions to address them, and needs for additional air quality information and actions to address challenges in meeting those needs. GAO reviewed literature, laws, and agency documents; conducted a demonstration of low-cost sensors; and interviewed EPA officials, selected state and local officials, representatives from air quality associations, and stakeholders. GAO is making two recommendations for EPA to (1) establish an asset management framework for the monitoring system that includes key characteristics and (2) develop an air quality monitoring modernization plan that aligns with leading practices. In written comments on the report, EPA generally agreed with the recommendations. For more information, contact J. Alfredo Gómez at (202) 512-3841 or gomezj@gao.gov.
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    In Crime News
    Continuing a longstanding Justice Department tradition, Attorney General William P. Barr today issued the following statement: “Americans have the opportunity once again to help shape the future of this nation by exercising their right to vote.  It is a right that forms the foundation of our democratic system of government, and is precious to all Americans.  The Department of Justice will work tirelessly alongside other federal, State, and local agencies to protect and vindicate that right as it is administered by State and local jurisdictions across the nation.”
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  • Retirement Security: Debt Increased for Older Americans over Time, but the Implications Vary by Debt Type
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found Americans age 50 or older had significantly more debt in 2016 than in 1989, according to GAO's analysis of Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF) data. Debt. The share of older households with debt was 71 percent in 2016 compared to 58 percent in 1989 (see figure). The median debt amount for older households with debt was about three times higher in 2016 ($55,300) than in 1989 ($18,900 in real 2016 dollars) and the share of older households with home, credit card, and student loan debt was significantly higher in 2016 than in 1989. Debt stress. The median ratio of debt to assets—known as the leverage ratio, a measure of debt stress—for older households was twice as high in 2016 than in 1989. Adverse debt outcomes. Measures of older individuals' adverse debt outcomes, including their share of mortgage and credit card debt that was late by at least 90 days, generally followed economic trends, peaking after the Great Recession of 2007-2009, according to GAO's analysis of Consumer Credit Panel (CCP) data from 2003 to 2019. However, the share of student loan debt that was late was significantly higher for older individuals in 2019 than in 2003. These trends in debt, debt stress, and adverse debt outcomes varied by older Americans' demographic and economic characteristics, including their age, credit score, and state of residence. For example, from 2003 to 2019, individuals in their late 70s often had higher shares of credit card and student loan debt that was late than those aged 50-74. In addition, older individuals with credit scores below 720—including those with subprime, fair, or good credit—had median student loan debt amounts that were more than twice as high in 2019 as in 2003. Further, older individuals in the Southeast and West had much higher median mortgage and student loan debt, as well as student loan delinquency rates, in 2019 than in 2003. Percent of Households Age 50 or Older with Any Debt (Left) and Median Leverage Ratio (Right) for These Households, 1989 to 2016 Note: The bars above and below the lines represent the bounds of 95 percent confidence intervals. While older Americans' overall debt and debt stress decreased as they aged, those in low-income households experienced greater debt stress according to GAO's analysis of Health and Retirement Study (HRS) data, a nationally representative survey that follows the same individuals over time. The share of older households in this cohort that had debt continuously decreased as they aged, from about 66 percent of households in 1992 to 38 percent in 2016, and the median leverage ratio declined from about 19 to 13 percent over this period (see figure). However, low-income households in this cohort consistently had greater levels of debt stress than high-income households. This disparity in debt stress increased as these households aged. Estimated Percent of Households with Any Debt for Those Born in 1931-1941 (Left) and Median Leverage Ratio for Those Households from 1992-2016 (Right) Notes: The lines overlapping the bars represent 95 percent confidence intervals. According to experts GAO interviewed, differences in debt type (that is, credit card versus housing debt) and debt stress levels will have varying effects on the retirement security of different groups. For example, experts noted that credit card debt has negative implications for older Americans' retirement security because credit cards often have high, variable interest rates and are not secured by any assets. In contrast, an increase in mortgage debt may have positive effects on retirement security because a home is generally a wealth-building asset. Experts also said that older individuals with lower incomes and unexpected health expenses are likely to experience greater debt stress, which can negatively affect retirement security. Similarly, experts noted that the increased debt stress faced by low-income households is also faced by non-White households. Further, GAO's analysis of data from the Survey of Consumer Finances found that in 2016, debt stress levels were about two times higher for Black, Hispanic/Latino, and Other/multiple-race households than for White households. Experts GAO interviewed noted it is too early to evaluate the retirement security implications of the recession caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, in part because CARES Act provisions suspend or forbear certain debt payments. However, as with past recessions, the COVID-19-related recession may reveal any economic fragility among older Americans who, for example, lost jobs or cannot work because of the pandemic. Why GAO Did This Study GAO reported in 2019 that an estimated 20 percent of older American households aged 55 or older had less than $22,000 in income in 2016 and GAO reported in 2015 that about 29 percent of older households had neither retirement savings accounts (such as a 401(k) plan) nor a defined benefit plan in 2013. Older Americans held nearly half of the total outstanding debt in 2020—and these debts may affect retirement security. The Census Bureau projects the number of older Americans will increase. GAO was asked to report on debt held by older Americans. This report examines (1) how the types, levels, and outcomes of debt changed for older Americans over time, including for different demographic and economic groups; (2) how the types and levels of debt held by the same older Americans changed as they aged, including for those in different demographic groups; and (3) the implications of these debt trends for the general retirement security of older Americans and their families. GAO analyzed data from two nationally representative surveys–the SCF (1989 through 2016 data) and the HRS (1992 through 2016 longitudinal data)–and nationally representative administrative data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York's CCP (2003 through 2019). These datasets were the most recent available at the time of GAO's analyses. GAO also reviewed studies and interviewed experts that GAO identified from these studies to further analyze the relationship between debt and retirement security. For more information, contact Kris Nguyen, (202) 512-7215 or NguyenTT@gao.gov.
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  • Medicaid Information Technology: Effective CMS Oversight and States’ Sharing of Claims Processing and Information Retrieval Systems Can Reduce Costs
    In U.S GAO News
    The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has reimbursed billions of dollars to states for the development, operation, and maintenance of claims processing and information retrieval systems—the Medicaid Management Information Systems (MMIS) and Eligibility and Enrollment (E&E) systems. Specifically, from fiscal year 2008 through fiscal year 2018, states spent a total of $44.1 billion on their MMIS and E&E systems. CMS reimbursed the states $34.3 billion of that total amount (see figure). Money Spent by States and Reimbursed by CMS from 2008–2018 for Medicaid Management Information Systems (MMIS) and Eligibility and Enrollment (E&E) Systems For fiscal years 2016 through 2018, CMS approved 93 percent and disapproved 0.4 percent of MMIS funding requests, while for E&E it approved 81 percent and disapproved 1 percent of the requests. The remaining 6.6 percent of MMIS requests and 18 percent of E&E requests were either withdrawn by states or were pending. GAO estimates that CMS had some level of supporting evidence of its review for about 74 percent of MMIS requests and about 99 percent of E&E requests. However, GAO estimates that about 100 percent of E&E requests and 68 percent of MMIS requests lacked pertinent information that would be essential for indicating that a complete review had been performed. Among CMS requirements for system implementation funding is that states submit an alternatives analysis, feasibility study, and cost benefit analysis. However, GAO found that about 45 percent of such requests it sampled for fiscal years 2016 through 2018 did not include these required documents. The above weaknesses were due, in part, to a lack of formal, documented procedures for reviewing state funding requests. CMS also lacked a risk-based process for overseeing systems after federal funds were provided. CMS provided helpful comments and recommendations to states in selected cases, but in other instances it did not. In two states that had contractors struggling to deliver successful projects, state officials said they had not received recommendations or technical assistance from CMS. The states eventually terminated the projects after spending a combined $38.5 million in federal funds. According to CMS officials, they rely largely on states to oversee systems projects. This perspective is consistent with a 2018 Office of Management and Budget (OMB) decision that federal information technology (IT) grants totaling about $9 billion annually would no longer be tracked on OMB's public web site on IT investment performance. Accordingly, the CMS and Health and Human Services chief information officers (CIO) are not involved in overseeing MMIS or E&E projects. Similarly, 21 of 47 states responding to GAO's survey reported that their state CIO had little or no involvement in overseeing their MMISs. Such non-involvement of officials with duties that should be heavily focused on successful acquisition and operation of IT projects could be hindering states' ability to effectively implement systems. To improve oversight, CMS has begun a new outcome-based initiative that focuses the agency's review of state funding requests on the successful achievement of business outcomes. However, as of February 2020, CMS had not yet established a timeline for including MMIS and E&E systems in the new outcome-based process. CMS had various initiatives aimed at reducing duplication of Medicaid systems (see table). Description and Status of Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Initiatives Aimed at Reducing Duplication by Sharing, Leveraging, and Reusing Medicaid Information Technology Initiative Description Implementation status Number of surveyed states reporting use of the initiative Reuse Repository Used by states to collect and share reusable artifacts. Made available in August 2017. As of January 2020, CMS was no longer supporting this initiative. 25 of the 50 reporting states Poplin Project Was to provide free, open-source application program interfaces for states to use in developing their modular Medicaid systems. Initiative never fully implemented. As of January 2020, CMS was no longer supporting this initiative. Three of the 50 reporting states Open Source Provider Screening Module Open-source module for states to use at no charge. Made available in August 2018. As of January 2020, CMS was no longer supporting this initiative. One of the 50 states reported attempting to use the module. Medicaid Enterprise Cohort Meetings A forum where states can discuss sharing, leveraging, and/or reuse of Medicaid technologies. As of January 2020, Cohort meetings were being held on a monthly basis. 47 of the 50 states reported participating in the meetings. Source: GAO analysis of agency data. | GAO-20-179 However, as of January 2020, the agency was no longer supporting most of these initiatives because they failed to produce the desired results. CMS regulations and GAO's prior work have highlighted the importance of reducing duplication by sharing and reusing Medicaid IT. To illustrate the potential for reducing duplication, 53 percent of state Medicaid officials responding to our survey reported using the same contractor to develop their MMIS. Nevertheless, selected states are taking the initiative to share systems or modules. Further support by CMS could result in additional sharing initiatives and potential cost savings. The Medicaid program is the largest source of health care funding for America's most at-risk populations and is funded jointly by states and the federal government. GAO was asked to assess CMS's oversight of federal expenditures for MMIS and E&E systems used for Medicaid. This report examines (1) the amount of federal funds that CMS has provided to state Medicaid programs to support MMIS and E&E systems, (2) the extent to which CMS reviews and approves states' funding requests for the systems and oversees the use of these funds, and (3) CMS's and states' efforts to reduce potential duplication of Medicaid IT systems. GAO assessed information related to MMIS and E&E systems, such as state expenditure data, federal regulations, and CMS guidance to the states for submitting funding requests, states' system funding requests, and IT project management documents. GAO also evaluated a generalizable sample of approved state funding requests from fiscal years 2016 through 2018 to analyze, among other things, CMS's review and approval process and conducted interviews with agency and state Medicaid officials. GAO also reviewed relevant regulations and guidance on promoting, sharing, and reusing MMIS and E&E technologies; and surveyed 50 states and six territories (hereafter referred to as states) regarding the MMIS and E&E systems, and assessed the complete or partial responses received from 50 states. GAO is making nine recommendations to improve CMS's processes for approving and overseeing the federal funds for MMIS and E&E systems and for bolstering efforts to reduce potential duplication. Among these recommendations are that CMS should develop formal, documented procedures that include specific steps to be taken in the advanced planning document review process and instructions on how CMS will document the reviews; develop, in consultation with the HHS and CMS CIOs, a documented, comprehensive, and risk-based process for how CMS will select IT projects for technical assistance and provide recommendations to assist states that is aimed at improving the performance of the systems; encourage state Medicaid program officials to consider involving state CIOs in overseeing Medicaid IT projects; establish a timeline for implementing the outcome-based certification process for MMIS and E&E systems; and identify, prior to approving funding for systems, similar projects that other states are pursuing so that opportunities to share, leverage, or reuse systems or system modules are considered. In written comments on a draft of this report, the department concurred with eight of the nine recommendations, and described steps it had taken and/or planned to take to address them. The department did not state whether it concurred with GAO's recommendation to encourage state officials to consider involving state CIOs in Medicaid IT projects. HHS stated that it was unable to discern evidence as to whether a certain structure contributed to a specific outcome. GAO believes, consistent with federal law, that CIOs are critically important to the success of IT projects. For more information, contact Vijay D’Souza at (202) 512-6240 or dsouzav@gao.gov.
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