Imagine you manage a business that needs some particular equipment or service—say you run a number of ice cream stores and need to purchase ice cream cones. Of course, you want to get those supplies as cheaply as possible. You would naturally try to buy all the cones you need from the same place, using your big purchase as leverage so you get the best deal possible, rather than having each store buy its own cones. That’s just commonsense, and it saves money.
But it’s not as easy to apply this principle on a larger scale than a few ice cream stores—say, a $1.3 trillion, 80,000 person department like the Department of Health and Human Services—and with a more complex product than ice cream cones—say, the thousands of different telecommunications and IT services needed to run HHS.
But this past year, the HHS team showed that you can apply this commonsense principle on that kind of scale, and deliver huge savings in the process. This month, HHS announced that it had consolidated 11 different contract opportunities under what is known as the Enterprise Infrastructure Solutions (EIS) vehicle into one contract for the whole department, with Verizon. Over the 12-year life of this new contract, our internal calculations suggest that the department could save roughly $700 million versus alternative arrangements and older contracts.
As Deputy Secretary of HHS—the department’s chief operating officer—and Assistant Secretary for Administration (ASA)—the department’s top business officer—we spend a great deal of time thinking about and working toward increasing the department’s transparency, accountability, cost efficiency, and quality of service. That is also the objective of the President’s Management Agenda (PMA), a strategy created by the White House Office of Management and Budget that HHS uses to improve how we run our department.
One of the PMA’s goals relates to what’s called category management, which aims to save taxpayer money through consolidating many smaller contracts so we can use government buying power to get better prices. A new opportunity to do this appeared several years ago: In 2017, the General Services Administration (GSA), led by Emily Murphy, announced that it would be transitioning responsibility from GSA to each cabinet department for purchasing telecommunication services using the EIS vehicle. Each year, the federal government spends billions of dollars on these services, including products like cloud storage, email servers, security programs, and more.
Following this devolution from GSA, HHS had 11 separate EIS contract opportunities—for its ten operating divisions and the Office of the Secretary—all operating independently of each other and creating an infrastructure that was complex and inefficient. If HHS had not consolidated into one contract, we would have needed to create separate multiple program management offices (PMOs) just to manage these numerous contracts.
So, in 2019, ASA, the HHS Office of the Chief Information Officer, and a dedicated acquisitions reform team—ReImagine HHS’s Buy Smarter initiative—called together technical leads from the various HHS divisions to determine what path forward made sense. The conclusion was that we could—and should—generate savings and improve services by consolidating these together into one department-wide EIS contract.
Consolidating purchases to save money makes intuitive sense. It was the idea behind the ReImagine HHS Buy Smarter initiative to improve how the department does acquisitions. But actually bringing these Buy Smarter principles all the way to implementation—consolidating the needs of 11 different large organizations into one—is a complex task that demands a lot of teamwork.
This project required creating a new PMO, within ASA, which drew on the expertise of the contract leads within the operation divisions. We brought in experts from across the department for this immensely complex process.
A great deal of work was needed to put together a contracting solicitation that met the needs of all the different HHS divisions, which include regulatory agencies like the FDA, research institutions like the NIH, healthcare providers at the Indian Health Service, and one of the world’s largest healthcare payers, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.
There were more than 275,000 different lines of inventory involved, representing a vast number of different services that would be supplied by the HHS EIS contract. Different divisions not only had different needs, and the needs they had identified for past contracts were spelled out in different language, all of which had to be harmonized. You can imagine how complex all this was!
Once we had a clear set of needs, we went through multiple rounds of negotiation with potential vendors. The final round explicitly focused on price, using our buying power to drive costs down. We had originally projected that consolidating contracts could save about $100 million over the lifetime of the contract; that would have been worth the effort. But we went much farther. Based on internal calculations, we’ve now estimated that the final agreement may result in roughly $700 million in savings and future cost avoidance. In fact, just creating one PMO to manage this contract has generated millions in cost avoidance.
Beyond just cost savings, there are other benefits to consolidation. Earlier this year, as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded, HHS systems came under sustained cyberattacks, which we fought off successfully. As a consequence, we decided the department needed to move to new systems to secure our networks. That transition is still in process, but it has happened faster and more easily because we began consolidating EIS contracts. Looking ahead, as the federal government moves ahead with technology advances like 5G and VoIP phones, we can implement improvements across HHS faster because of our unified EIS approach.
The even better news about this contract is that it gives us confidence we can apply these common sense principles to save money and improve operations in other areas. Our work with EIS can serve as a roadmap for how to generate savings with other types of HHS acquisitions and at other federal departments.
The recognition for this success, above all, has to go to the hardworking HHS staff who made this possible: those who work in ASA, those who worked on EIS contracts within the operating divisions, and those who contributed to the ReImagine HHS Buy Smarter initiative. Each of these members of our HHS team deserve recognition for taking on this challenge and seeing it through.
More broadly, we are grateful to OMB and the PMA team for laying out a strategy for departments to undertake bold reforms, and to the GSA team for their close partnership.
Together, this team and these partnerships are just getting started, and more success is still to come. These kinds of great successes help the taxpayer and also help us enable the mission of our department—the health and well-being of all Americans. Approximately $700 million in savings and cost avoidance is more than a great start; it is a promise that a business-minded, common sense approach to the operation of government can bring fantastic results. Wish us luck!
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- COVID-19: Critical Vaccine Distribution, Supply Chain, Program Integrity, and Other Challenges Require Focused Federal AttentionBy Sam NewsJanuary 28, 2021Since November 2020, the number of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. has rapidly increased, further straining health care systems across the country. Between December 31, 2020, and January 13, 2021, new reported COVID-19 cases averaged about 225,000 per day—over 7 and 3 times higher than the surges the nation experienced during the spring and summer of 2020, respectively. (See figure.) The country also continues to experience serious economic repercussions and turmoil as a result of the pandemic. As of December 2020, there were more than 10.7 million unemployed individuals, compared to nearly 5.8 million individuals at the beginning of the calendar year. Until the country better contains the spread of the virus, the pandemic will likely remain a significant obstacle to more robust economic activity. Reported COVID-19 Cases per Day in the U.S., Through January 13, 2021 As of January 2021, 27 of GAO’s 31 previous recommendations remained unimplemented. GAO remains deeply troubled that agencies have not acted on recommendations to more fully address critical gaps in the medical supply chain. While GAO recognizes federal agencies continue to take some steps, GAO underscores the importance of developing a well-formulated plan to address critical gaps for the remainder of the pandemic, especially in light of the recent surge in cases. In addition, implementation of GAO’s recommendation concerning the importance of clear and comprehensive vaccine distribution and communication plans remains a work in progress. Moreover, slow implementation of GAO’s recommendations relating to program integrity, in particular those made to the Small Business Administration (SBA) and Department of Labor (DOL), creates risk of considerable improper payments, including those related to fraud, and falls far short of transparency and accountability expectations. See appendix III for the status of GAO’s past recommendations. GAO is pleased that the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021—enacted in December of 2020—requires a number of actions that are consistent with several of GAO’s prior recommendations, including those related to the medical supply chain, vaccines and therapeutics, and COVID-19 testing. GAO will monitor the implementation of the act’s requirements. GAO’s new recommendations are discussed below. COVID-19 Testing Diagnostic testing for COVID-19 is critical to controlling the spread of the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. GAO found that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has not issued a comprehensive and publicly available national testing strategy. HHS’s national strategy documents are not comprehensive because they only partially address the characteristics that GAO has found to be desirable in an effective national strategy. For example, testing strategy documents do not always provide consistent definitions and benchmarks to measure progress, not all documents clearly define the problem and risks, and there is limited information on the types of resources required for future needs. Furthermore, some of the documents have not been made public. While the national testing strategy is formally outlined in a publicly available document, HHS has provided only Congress with the COVID-19 Testing Strategy Reports, which detail the implementation of the testing strategy. Stakeholders who are involved in the response efforts told GAO they were unaware of the existence of a national strategy or did not have a clear understanding of the strategy. Without a comprehensive, publicly available national strategy, HHS is at risk of key stakeholders and the public lacking crucial information to support an informed and coordinated testing response. GAO is recommending that HHS develop and make publicly available a comprehensive national COVID-19 testing strategy that incorporates all six characteristics of an effective national strategy. Such a strategy could build upon existing strategy documents that HHS has produced for the public and Congress to allow for a more coordinated pandemic testing approach. HHS partially concurred with this recommendation and agreed that it should take steps to more directly incorporate some of the elements of an effective national strategy. Vaccines and Therapeutics Multiple federal agencies, through Operation Warp Speed, continue to support the development and manufacturing of vaccines and therapeutics to prevent and treat COVID-19. As of January 8, 2021, two of the six vaccines supported by Operation Warp Speed have been authorized for emergency use, and vaccine distribution and administration have begun. (See figure below). However, distribution and administration fell short of expectations set for the end of the year. As of December 30, 2020, Operation Warp Speed had distributed (shipped) about 12.4 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine and providers reported administering about 2.8 million initial doses, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. In September 2020, GAO stressed the importance of having a plan that focused on coordination and communication and recommended that HHS, with the support of the Department of Defense, establish a time frame for documenting and sharing a national plan for distributing and administering COVID-19 vaccine, and among other things, outline an approach for how efforts would be coordinated across federal agencies and nonfederal entities.To date, this recommendationhas not been fully implemented. GAO reiterates the importance of doing so. Effective coordination and communication among federal agencies, commercial partners, jurisdictions, and providers is critical to successfully deploying COVID-19 vaccines and managing public expectations, especially because the initial supply of vaccine has been limited. Status of Development of Six Operation Warp Speed COVID-19 Vaccine Candidates, as of January 8, 2021 Medical Supply Chain The pandemic has highlighted vulnerabilities in the nation’s medical supply chain, which includes personal protective equipment and other supplies necessary to treat individuals with COVID-19. The Strategic National Stockpile (SNS) is an important piece of HHS’s recently developed strategy to improve the medical supply chain to enhance pandemic response capabilities. However, the department has yet to develop a process for engaging about the strategy with key nonfederal stakeholders that have a shared role for providing supplies during a pandemic, such as state and territorial governments and the private sector. GAO’s work has noted the importance of directly and continuously involving key stakeholders, including Congress, in the development of successful agency reforms and helping to harness ideas, expertise, and resources. To improve the nation’s response and preparedness for pandemics, GAO recommends that HHS establish a process for regularly engaging with Congress and nonfederal stakeholders—including state, local, tribal, and territorial governments and private industry—as the agency refines and implements its supply chain strategy for pandemic preparedness, to include the role of the SNS. HHS generally concurred with this recommendation and noted that the department regularly engages with Congress and nonfederal stakeholders. GAO maintains that capitalizing on existing relationships to engage these critical stakeholders as HHS refines and implements a supply chain strategy, to include the role of the SNS, will improve a whole-of-government response to, and preparedness for, pandemics. In August 2020, the President issued an Executive Order directing agencies to take steps toward the goal of strengthening domestic drug manufacturing and supply chains. Federal agencies have started implementing the Executive Order, but expressed concerns about their ability to implement some of the provisions. In particular, GAO found that federal agencies do not have complete and accessible information to identify supply chain vulnerabilities and to report the manufacturing supply chains of drugs that were procured by the agency. To help it identify and mitigate vulnerabilities in the U.S. drug supply chain, GAO recommends that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ensure drug manufacturing data obtained are complete and accessible, including by working with manufacturers and other federal agencies, such as the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs and, if necessary, seek authority to obtain complete and accessible information. HHS neither agreed nor disagreed with this recommendation. COVID-19 Data for Health Care Indicators The federal government does not have a process to help systematically define and ensure the collection of standardized data across the relevant federal agencies and related stakeholders to help respond to COVID-19, communicate the status of the pandemic with citizens, or prepare for future pandemics. As a result, COVID-19 information that is collected and reported by states and other entities to the federal government is often incomplete and inconsistent. The lack of complete and consistent data limits HHS’s and others’ ability to monitor trends in the burden of the pandemic across states and regions, make informed comparisons between such areas, and assess the impact of public health actions to prevent and mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Further, incomplete and inconsistent data have limited HHS’s and others’ ability to prioritize the allocation of health resources in specific geographic areas or among certain populations most affected by the pandemic. To improve the federal government’s response to COVID-19 and preparedness for future pandemics, GAO recommends that HHS immediately establish an expert committee comprised of knowledgeable health care professionals from the public and private sectors, academia, and nonprofits or use an existing one to systematically review and inform the alignment of ongoing data collection and reporting standards for key health indicators. HHS partially concurred with this recommendation and agreed that it should establish a dedicated working group or other mechanism with a focus on addressing COVID-19 data collection shortcomings. Drug Manufacturing Inspections FDA is responsible for overseeing the safety and effectiveness of all drugs marketed in the U.S., including those manufactured overseas, and typically conducts more than 1,600 inspections of foreign and domestic drug manufacturing establishments every year. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, since March 2020, FDA has limited domestic and foreign inspections for the safety of its employees. (See figure below.) FDA has used alternative inspection tools to maintain some oversight of drug manufacturing quality while inspections are paused, including inspections conducted by foreign regulators, requesting and reviewing records and other information, and sampling and testing. Although FDA has determined that inspections conducted by certain European regulators are equivalent to an FDA inspection, other tools provide useful information but are not equivalent to an FDA inspection. As a result, FDA could be faced with a backlog of inspections, threatening the agency’s goal to maximize inspections prioritized by its risk-based site selection model each year. GAO recommends that FDA (1) ensure that inspection plans for future fiscal years identify, analyze, and respond to the issues presented by the backlog of inspections that could jeopardize its goal of risk-driven inspections, and (2) fully assess the agency’s alternative inspection tools and consider whether these tools or others could provide the information needed to supplement regular inspection activities or help meet the agency’s drug oversight objectives when inspections are not possible in the future. FDA concurred with both recommendations. Number of FDA-Conducted Domestic and Foreign Drug Manufacturing Establishment Inspections, Fiscal Years 2019–2020, by Month Federal Contracting Federal agencies are using other transaction agreements to respond to the pandemic, which are contracting mechanisms that can enable agencies to negotiate terms and conditions specific to a project. GAO found that HHS misreports its other transaction agreements related to COVID-19 as procurement contracts, including other transaction agreements with about $1.5 billion obligated for Operation Warp Speed and other medical countermeasures. HHS’s approach is inconsistent with federal acquisition regulations and limits the public’s insight into the agency’s contract spending. To ensure consistent tracking and transparency of federal contracting activity related to the pandemic, GAO recommends that HHS accurately report data in the federal procurement database system and provide information that would allow the public to distinguish between spending on other transaction agreements and procurement contracts. HHS concurred with this recommendation. Oversight of Worker Safety and Health GAO identified concerns about federal oversight of worker safety and health amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has adapted its enforcement methods for COVID-19 to help protect agency employees from the virus and address resource constraints, such as by permitting remote inspections in place of on-site inspections of workplaces. However, gaps in OSHA’s oversight and tracking of its adapted enforcement methods prevent the agency from assessing the effectiveness of its enforcement methods during the pandemic, ensuring that its adapted enforcement methods do not miss violations, and ensuring that employers are addressing certain identified violations. To improve its oversight, GAO recommends that OSHA (1) develop a plan, with time frames, to implement the agency’s oversight processes for COVID-19-adapted enforcement methods, and (2) ensure that its data system includes comprehensive information on use of these enforcement methods to inform these processes. The agency neither agreed nor disagreed with these recommendations. Additionally, OSHA’s data do not include comprehensive information on workplace exposure to COVID-19. For example, OSHA does not receive employer reports of all work-related hospitalizations related to COVID-19, as disease symptoms do not appear within the required reporting time frames. Employers may also face challenges determining whether COVID-19 hospitalizations or fatalities are work-related because of COVID-19’s incubation period and the difficulties in tracking the source of exposure. GAO recommends that OSHA determine what additional datamay be neededfrom employers or other sources to better target the agency’s COVID-19 enforcement efforts. The agency neither agreed nor disagreed with this recommendation. Assistance for Fishery Participants The CARES Act appropriated $300 million in March 2020 to the Department of Commerce (Commerce) to assist eligible tribal, subsistence, commercial, and charter fishery participants affected by COVID-19, which may include direct relief payments. After administrative fees were assessed, $298 million of the $300 million appropriated was obligated for fishery participants.Widespread restaurant closures in the spring of 2020 led to a decrease in demand for seafood, adversely affecting the fisheries industry. As of December 4, 2020, all funds had been obligated and only about 18 percent ($53.9 million) of the CARES Act funding obligated for fishery participants had been disbursed, which is inconsistent with Office of Management and Budget guidance on the importance of agencies distributing CARES Act funds in an expedient manner. Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) officials said they expect that the vast majority of funds will be disbursed to fisheries participants by early 2021. However, the agency does not have the needed information centralized to help ensure that funds are being disbursed expeditiously and efficiently. GAO recommends that NOAA develop a mechanism to track the progress of states, tribes, and territories in meeting established timelines to disburse funds in an expedited and efficient manner. NOAA concurred with this recommendation. Program Integrity GAO continues to identify areas to improve program integrity and reduce the risk of improper payments for programs funded by the COVID-19 relief laws now that federal agencies have obligated a total of $1.9 trillion and expended $1.7 trillion of the $2.7 trillion appropriated for response and recovery efforts as of November 30, 2020. Federal relief programs remain vulnerable to significant risk of fraudulent activities because of the need to quickly provide funds and other assistance to those affected by COVID-19 and its economic effects. In this report, GAO identifies concerns about overpayments and potential fraud in the unemployment insurance (UI) system, specifically in the federally funded Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program, which provides UI benefits to individuals not otherwise eligible for these benefits, such as self-employed and certain gig economy workers. As of January 11, 2021, states that had submitted data to DOL reported more than $1.1 billion in PUA overpayments from March through December 2020. While DOL requires states to report data on PUA overpayments, as of the beginning of 2021, the agency was not tracking the amount of overpayments recovered, limiting insight into the effectiveness of states’ efforts to recoup federal funds. To better track the recovery of federal funds, GAO recommends that DOL collect data from states on the amount of PUA overpayments recovered. DOL concurred with this recommendation, and has taken the first step toward implementing it by issuing new guidance and updated instructions for states to report PUA overpayment recovery data. GAO also remains concerned about SBA’s management of internal controls and fraud risks in the Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL) program. COVID-19 relief laws made qualifying small businesses and nonprofit organizations adversely affected by COVID-19 eligible for financial assistance from the EIDL program. Some approval requirements were also relaxed, such as requiring each applicant to demonstrate that it could not obtain credit elsewhere, through December 31, 2021. As of December 31, 2020, SBA officials said they had approved about 3.7 million applications for loans related to COVID-19, totaling about $200 billion. SBA rapidly processed loans and advances to millions of small businesses affected by COVID-19. GAO’s analysis of SBA data shows that the agency approved EIDL loans and advances for potentially ineligible businesses. For example, SBA approved at least 3,000 loans totaling about $156 million to potentially ineligible businesses in industries that SBA policies state were ineligible for the EIDL program, such as insurance and real estate development, as of September 30, 2020. GAO recommends that SBA develop and implement portfolio-level data analytics across EIDL loans and advances made in response to COVID-19 as a means to detect potentially ineligible and fraudulent applications. SBA neither agreed nor disagreed with this recommendation. As of January 15, 2021, the U.S. had about 23 million cumulative reported cases of COVID-19 and more than 387,000 reported deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The country also continues to experience serious economic repercussions. Four relief laws, including the CARES Act, were enacted as of November 2020 to provide appropriations to address the public health and economic threats posed by COVID-19. As of November 30, 2020, of the $2.7 trillion appropriated by these four laws, the federal government had obligated a total of $1.9 trillion and expended $1.7 trillion of the COVID-19 relief funds, as reported by federal agencies. In December 2020, the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, provided additional federal assistance for the ongoing response and recovery. The CARES Act includes a provision for GAO to report on its ongoing monitoring and oversight efforts related to the COVID-19 pandemic. This report examines the federal government’s continued efforts to respond to and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. GAO reviewed data, documents, and guidance from federal agencies about their activities and interviewed federal and state officials and stakeholders. GAO completed its audit work on January 15, 2021. GAO is making 13 new recommendations for agencies that are detailed in this Highlights and in the report. For more information, contact A. Nicole Clowers at (202) 512-7114 or email@example.com.[Read More…]
- State Department Terrorist Designation of Saraya al-MukhtarBy Sam NewsDecember 15, 2020
- Southwest Border: Information on Federal Agencies’ Process for Acquiring Private Land for BarriersBy Sam NewsNovember 23, 2020The interagency process for acquiring private land for border barrier construction along the southwest border involves the Department of Homeland Security's U.S. Border Patrol and the Department of Defense's U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) as well as the Department of Justice. The key acquisition steps are (1) identifying the landowners affected by planned barriers, (2) contacting landowners to obtain access to their property for surveying and other due diligence activities, (3) negotiating with landowners, and (4) concluding the acquisition preferably through negotiated purchase or via condemnation. The government may acquire temporary access to or permanent ownership of property by initiating a condemnation proceeding in federal district court. In this judicial process, the government articulates the public use necessitating the acquisition and the estimated compensation for the landowner, among other things. Border Barrier Construction in South Texas GAO's analysis of USACE data shows that, as of July 2020, the federal government acquired 135 private tracts, or sections, of land and is working to acquire 991 additional tracts. The privately owned land the government acquired or is working to acquire totals about 5,275 acres or 8.2 square miles, and most of it—1,090 of 1,126 tracts—is in south Texas. The Border Patrol planned for private land acquisition in south Texas to take 21 to 30 months compared with 12 months for comparable land acquisitions in other regions. Border Patrol estimated private land acquisition in south Texas would take more time due to factors unique to south Texas, including: Barrier placement in south Texas. Additional time is needed for the government to work with landowners to ensure that they have access to and are justly compensated for any negative impact on the value of remaining property between the border barrier and the Rio Grande River, according to Border Patrol officials. Missing or incomplete land records. Border Patrol officials said that it often takes time to identify parties with interest in a tract of land due to missing or incomplete land records. In cases where the government is unable to identify interested parties, the government has to use the condemnation process to resolve title issues and acquire ownership. In January 2017, the President issued Executive Order 13767, which directed the Secretary of Homeland Security to immediately plan, design, and construct a wall or other physical barriers along the southwest border. These new barriers would add to or replace 654 miles of primary pedestrian and vehicular barriers constructed as of fiscal year 2015. Of the nearly 2,000-mile southwest border, roughly 30 percent is federal land. Private, tribal, and state-owned land constitutes the remaining 70 percent of the border. GAO was asked to review the U.S. government's efforts to acquire privately owned land along the southwest border for barrier construction. GAO's review focused on the government's acquisition of private land and did not address acquisition of federal, state, or tribal property. This report examines (1) federal agencies' process for acquiring private land identified for the construction of border barriers and (2) the status of federal acquisition of private land for the barrier construction. GAO reviewed key documents; interviewed Border Patrol, USACE, and Department of Justice officials; and interviewed stakeholder organizations and landowners. GAO also analyzed data on the status of private land acquisition and conducted a site visit to areas in south Texas. For more information, contact Rebecca Gambler at (202) 512-8777 or GamblerR@gao.gov.[Read More…]
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- Charleston County School District Agrees to Provide Language Access for Limited English Proficient ParentsBy Sam NewsMarch 2, 2021Today the Justice Department announced a settlement agreement with the Charleston County School District to resolve its investigation into complaints that the school district failed to communicate essential information to thousands of Spanish-speaking, limited English proficient (LEP) parents, denying their children full and equal access to the district’s education programs and services. The Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of South Carolina conducted the investigation under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974.[Read More…]
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- Chinese National Charged with Criminal Conspiracy to Export US Power Amplifiers to ChinaBy Sam NewsJanuary 29, 2021An indictment was unsealed this week charging Cheng Bo, also known as Joe Cheng, a 45-year-old national of the People’s Republic of China, with participating in a criminal conspiracy from 2012-2015 to violate U.S. export laws by shipping U.S. power amplifiers to China. Cheng’s former employer, Avnet Asia Pte. Ltd., a Singapore company and global distributor of electronic components and related software, agreed to pay a financial penalty to the United States of $1,508,000 to settle criminal liability for the conduct of its former employees, including Cheng. As part of a non-prosecution agreement, Avnet Asia admitted responsibility for Cheng’s unlawful conspiracy to ship export-controlled U.S. goods with potential military applications to China, and also for the criminal conduct of another former employee who, from 2007-2009, illegally caused U.S. goods to be shipped to China and Iran without a license. This conduct violated the International Emergency Economic Powers Act.[Read More…]
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- 2020 Census: Key Areas for Attention Raised by Compressed TimeframesBy Sam NewsSeptember 10, 2020In response to the COVID-19 pandemic and an August decision to end data collection about 30 days earlier than planned, the Census Bureau (Bureau) has made late design changes to the 2020 Census. The Bureau also announced it would accelerate its response processing operations, which improve the completeness and accuracy of census results. According to the Bureau, late design changes introduce risk to census quality and costs. The compressed time frames for field operations and data processing raise a number of issues that will require the Bureau's attention. It will be important for the Bureau to hire and retain a sufficient workforce, manage operational changes to the Nonresponse Follow-up operation, ensure census coverage at the local level, evaluate risks in streamlining response processing, and ensure timely and quality processing of census responses. As the 2020 Census continues, GAO will monitor the remainder of field operations and the Bureau's response processing operations. Like the rest of the country, the Bureau has been required to respond to COVID-19. Resulting delays, compressed time frames, implementation of untested procedures, and continuing challenges could undermine the overall quality of the count and escalate census costs. GAO was asked to testify on its ongoing work on implementation of the 2020 Census. This testimony examines the cost and progress of key 2020 Census operations critical to a cost-effective enumeration. Over the past decade, GAO has made 112 recommendations specific to the 2020 Census. To date, the Bureau has implemented 92. As of September 2020, 19 of the recommendations had not been fully implemented. For more information, contact J. Christopher Mihm at (202)512-6806 or firstname.lastname@example.org.[Read More…]
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- COVID-19: Urgent Actions Needed to Better Ensure an Effective Federal ResponseBy Sam NewsNovember 30, 2020The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in catastrophic loss of life and substantial damage to the global economy, stability, and security. According to federal data, the U.S. had an average of 116,000 new COVID-19 cases per day from November 1 through November 12, 2020. Between January 2020 and October 2020, at least 237,000 more deaths occurred from all causes, including COVID-19, than would normally be expected, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Further, while the economy has improved since July 2020, many people remain unemployed, including both those temporarily laid off and those who have permanently lost their job (see figure). Also, more households have become seriously delinquent on mortgage payments during the pandemic. In addition, GAO’s review of academic studies suggests the pandemic will likely remain a significant obstacle to more robust economic activity. Number of Unemployed Workers Permanently Losing Jobs and on Temporary Layoff, January 2019 through October 2020 In response to the pandemic and its effects, Congress and the administration have taken a series of actions to protect the health and well-being of Americans. However, as the end of 2020 approaches, urgent actions are needed to help ensure an effective federal response on a range of public health and economic issues. Medical Supplies While the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) have made numerous efforts to mitigate supply shortages and expand the medical supply chain, shortages of certain supplies persist. In September 2020, GAO reported that ongoing constraints with the availability of certain types of personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing supplies remain due to a supply chain with limited domestic production and high global demand. In October 2020, GAO surveyed public health and emergency management officials from all states, the District of Columbia, and U.S. territories (hereafter states) and found the following: Testing supplies. Most states reported no shortages of swabs or transport media, but about one-third to one-half reported shortages in other types of testing supplies (see figure). State-Reported Testing Supply Shortages, as of October 2020 GAO surveyed officials in the 50 states; Washington, D.C.; and the five U.S. territories and received responses from 47 of the 56 locations, representing 41 states; Washington, D.C.; and all five territories. Not all states responded to every question. PPE. The majority of states that responded were mainly able to fulfill requests for supplies from organizations and entities within their states. However, availability constraints continue with certain PPE, such as nitrile gloves. Supplies for future vaccine needs. About one-third of states that responded stated that they were “greatly” or “completely” concerned about having sufficient vaccine-related supplies to administer COVID-19 vaccines. An additional 21 states indicated that they were moderately concerned. In September 2020, GAO recommended that HHS, in coordination with FEMA, should further develop and communicate to stakeholders plans outlining specific actions the federal government will take to help mitigate supply chain shortages for the remainder of the pandemic; immediately document roles and responsibilities for supply chain management functions transitioning to HHS, including continued support from other federal partners, to ensure sufficient resources exist to sustain and make the necessary progress in stabilizing the supply chain; and devise interim solutions, such as systems and guidance and dissemination of best practices, to help states enhance their ability to track the status of supply requests and plan for supply needs for the remainder of the pandemic response. HHS and the Department of Homeland Security disagreed with these recommendations, noting, among other things, the work that they had done to manage the medical supply chain and increase supply availability. In November 2020, HHS repeated its disagreement with GAO’s recommendations and noted its efforts to meet the needs of states. In light of the surge in COVID-19 cases, along with reported shortages, including GAO’s nationwide survey findings, GAO underscores the critical imperative for HHS and FEMA to implement GAO’s September 2020 recommendations. Vaccines and Therapeutics In a recent GAO report (GAO-21-207), GAO found that there has been significant federal investment to accelerate vaccine and therapeutic development, such as through Operation Warp Speed, a partnership between the Department of Defense and HHS that aims to accelerate the development, manufacturing, and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics. Separately, Emergency Use Authorizations (EUA), which allow for the emergency use of medical products without Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval or licensure provided certain statutory criteria are met, have also been used for therapeutics. As of November 9, 2020, FDA had made four therapeutics available to treat COVID-19 through EUAs. In that report, GAO recommended that FDA identify waysto uniformly discloseinformation from its scientific review of safety and effectiveness data when issuing EUAs for therapeutics and vaccines. By doing so, FDA could help improve the transparency of, and ensure public trust in, its EUA decisions. HHS neither agreed nor disagreed with the recommendation, but said it shared GAO’s goal of transparency. COVID-19 Testing Guidance HHS and its component agencies have taken several key actions to document a federal COVID-19 testing strategy and provide testing-related agency guidance. However, this guidance has not always been transparent, raising the risk of confusion and eroding trust in government. In particular, while it is expected that guidance will change as new information about the novel virus evolves, frequent changes to general CDC testing guidelines have not always been communicated with a scientific explanation. GAO recommends that HHS ensure that CDC clearly discloses the scientific rationale for any change to testing guidelines at the time the changeis made. HHS concurred with this recommendation. Types of COVID-19 Testing Approaches Nursing Home Care In September 2020, the Coronavirus Commission on Safety and Quality in Nursing Homes (established by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) in June 2020) made 27 recommendations to CMS on topics such as testing, PPE, and visitation. CMS released a response to the commission that broadly outlined the actions it has taken to date, but it has not fully addressed the commission’s recommendations or provided an implementation plan to track and report progress toward implementing them. While CMS is not obligated to implement all of the commission’s recommendations, the agency has not indicated any areas where it does not plan to take action. GAO recommends that CMS quickly develop a plan that further details how it intends to respond to and implement, as appropriate, the commission’s recommendations. HHS neither agreed nor disagreed with this recommendation and said it would refer to and act upon the commission’s recommendations, as appropriate. In addition, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) partners with state governments to provide nursing home care to more than 20,000 veterans in over 150 state veterans homes. In March 2020, VA instructed its contractor to stop in-person inspections due to concerns about COVID-19. As of September 2020, these inspections had not resumed, leaving veterans at risk of receiving poor quality care. Additionally, VA does not collect timely data on the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths occurring at each state veterans home, hindering its ability to monitor and take steps to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in these homes. GAO recommends that VA (1) develop a plan to resume inspections of state veterans homes, which may include using in-person, a mix of virtual and in-person, or fully virtual inspections, and (2) collect timely data on COVID-19 cases and deaths in each state veterans home. VA concurred with both recommendations. Economic Impact Payments The CARES Act included economic impact payments (EIP) for eligible individuals to address financial stress due to the pandemic. As of September 30, 2020, the Department of the Treasury (Treasury) and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) had disbursed over 165.8 million payments to individuals, totaling $274.7 billion. According to IRS data, more than 26 million non-filers—individuals who do not normally file a tax return and may be hard to reach—received a payment (see figure). However, everyone that was supposed to receive a payment was not reached. Starting in September 2020, IRS sent notices to nearly 9 million individuals who had not yet received an EIP. Number of Filers and Non-Filers Issued an Economic Impact Payment, as of September 30, 2020 Treasury and IRS officials did not plan to track and analyze the outcomes of their EIP notice mailing effort until 2021. The lack of timely analysis deprives Treasury and IRS of data they could use to assess the effectiveness of their notice strategy and redirect resources as needed to other outreach and communication efforts. GAO recommends that Treasury, in coordination with IRS, should begin tracking and publicly reporting the number of individuals who were mailed an EIP notification letter and filed for and received an EIP, and use that information to inform ongoing outreach and communications efforts. Treasury agreed with this recommendation. Unemployment Insurance The CARES Act created three federally funded temporary programs for unemployment insurance (UI) that expanded benefit eligibility and enhanced benefits. In its weekly news releases, the Department of Labor (DOL) publishes the number of weeks of unemployment benefits claimed by individuals in each state during the period and reports the total count as the number of people claiming benefits nationwide. DOL officials told GAO that they have traditionally used this number as a proxy for the number of individuals claiming benefits because they were closely related. However, the number of claims has not been an accurate estimate of the number of individuals claiming benefits during the pandemic because of backlogs in processing a historic volume of claims, among other data issues. Without an accurate accounting of the number of individuals who are relying on these benefits in as close to real time as possible, policymakers may be challenged to respond to the crisis at hand. GAO recommends that DOL (1) revise its weekly news releases to clarify that in the current unemployment environment, the numbers it reports for weeks of unemployment claimed do not accurately estimate the number of unique individuals claiming benefits, and (2) pursue options to report the actual number of distinct individuals claiming benefits, such as by collecting these already available data from states. DOL agreed with the recommendation to revise its weekly news releases, and partially agreed with the recommendation to pursue options to report the actual number of distinct individuals claiming benefits. Tax Relief for Businesses To provide liquidity to businesses during the pandemic, the CARES Act included tax measures to help businesses receive cash refunds or other reductions to tax obligations. Some taxpayers need to file an amended income tax return to take advantage of these provisions; at the same time, IRS faces an increase in mail and paper processing delays due to the pandemic, which may delay the timely processing of this paperwork and issuance of these refunds. GAO recommends that IRS update its form instructions to include information on its electronic filing capability for tax year 2019. IRS agreed with this recommendation. Program Integrity Although the extent and significance of improper payments associated with COVID-19 relief funds have not yet been determined, the impact of these improper payments, including those that are the result of fraud, could be substantial. For example, numerous individuals are facing federal charges related to attempting to defraud the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), UI program, or other federal programs, and many more investigations are underway. To address the risk of improper payments due to fraud and other causes, GAO previously recommended the following: The Small Business Administration (SBA) should develop and implement plans to identify and respond to risks in the PPP to ensure program integrity, achieve program effectiveness, and address potential fraud. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB), in consultation with Treasury, should issue timely guidance for auditing new and existing COVID-19-related programs, including Coronavirus Relief Fund payments, as soon as possible. Audits of entities that receive federal funds are critical to the federal government’s ability to help safeguard those funds.Also, Congress should amend the Social Security Act to explicitly allow the Social Security Administration to share its full death data with Treasury for data matching to prevent payments to ineligible individuals. GAO maintains that implementing these recommendations fully is critically important in order to protect federal funds from improper payments resulting from fraud and other risks. In this report, GAO also identifies new concerns about the timely reporting of improper payments for COVID-19 programs. The COVID-19 relief laws appropriated over a trillion dollars that may be spent through newly established programs to fund response and recovery efforts, such as SBA’s PPP. However, unlike the supplemental appropriations acts that provided for disaster relief related to the 2017 hurricanes and California wildfires, the COVID-19 relief laws did not require agencies to deem programs receiving these relief funds that expend more than a threshold amount as "susceptible to significant improper payments." In addition, based on OMB guidance, improper payment estimates associated with new COVID-19 programs established in March 2020 may not be reported until November 2022, in some instances. GAO is making two recommendations: OMB should develop and issueguidance directingagencies to include COVID-19 relief funding with associated key risks, such as changes to existing program eligibility rules, as part of their improper payment estimation methodologies, especially for existing programs that received COVID-19 relief funding. SBA should expeditiously estimate improper payments and report estimates and error rates for PPP due to concerns about the possibility that improper payments, including those resulting from fraudulent activity, could be widespread. GAO is also suggesting that Congress consider, in any future legislation appropriating COVID-19 relief funds, designating all executive agency programs and activities making more than $100 million in payments from COVID-19 relief funds as “susceptible to significant improper payments.” Aviation Assistance and Preparedness GAO identified concerns about efforts to monitor CARES Act financial assistance to the aviation sector. Treasury’s Payroll Support Program (PSP) provides $32 billion in payroll support payments and loans to help the aviation industry retain its employees. While recipients have begun submitting required compliance reports, Treasury has not yet finalized a monitoring system to identify and respond to the risk of noncompliance with PSP agreement terms, potentially hindering its ability to detect program misuse in a timely manner. GAO is recommending that Treasury finish developing and implement acompliance monitoringplan that identifies and responds to risks in the PSP. Treasury neither agreed nor disagreed with this recommendation, but committed to reviewing additional measures that may further enhance its compliance monitoring and ensure that PSP funds are used as intended. In June 2020, GAO suggested that Congress take legislative action to require the Secretary of Transportation to work with relevant agencies, such as HHS, the Department of Homeland Security, and other stakeholders, to develop a national aviation-preparedness plan to limit the spread of communicable diseasethreats and minimize traveland trade impacts. GAO originally made this recommendation to the Department of Transportation in December 2015. GAO urges Congress to take swift action to require such a plan, without which the U.S. will not be as prepared to minimize and quickly respond to ongoing and future communicable disease events. As of November 12, 2020, the U.S. had over 10.3 million cumulative reported cases of COVID-19 and about 224,000 reported deaths, according to federal agencies. The country also continues to experience serious economic repercussions. Four relief laws, including the CARES Act, were enacted as of November 2020 to provide appropriations to address the public health and economic threats posed by COVID-19. As of September 30, 2020, of the $2.6 trillion appropriated by these acts, the federal government had obligated a total of $1.8 trillion and expended $1.6 trillion of the COVID-19 relief funds, as reported by federal agencies. The CARES Act included a provision for GAO to report on its ongoing monitoring and oversight efforts related to the COVID-19 pandemic. This report examines the federal government’s continued efforts to respond to and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. GAO reviewed data, documents, and guidance from federal agencies about their activities and interviewed federal and state officials. GAO also sent a survey to public health and emergency management officials in the 50 states, Washington, D.C., and the five U.S. territories regarding medical supplies. GAO is making 11 new recommendations for agencies that are detailed in this Highlights and in the report. GAO is also raising one matter for congressional consideration. For more information, contact A. Nicole Clowers at (202)512-7114 or email@example.com.[Read More…]
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- Environmental Liabilities: NASA’s Reported Financial Liabilities Have Grown, and Several Factors Contribute to Future UncertaintiesBy Sam NewsJanuary 15, 2021The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) estimated cleanup and restoration across the agency would cost $1.9 billion as of fiscal year 2020, up from $1.7 billion in fiscal year 2019. This reflects an increase of $724 million, or 61 percent, from 2014. NASA identified contamination at 14 centers around the country, as of 2019. Five of the 14 centers decreased their environmental liabilities from 2014 to 2019, but liability growth at the other centers offset those decreases and contributed to the net increase in environmental liabilities. Santa Susana Field Laboratory, California, had about $502 million in environmental liabilities growth during this period (see fig.). Nearly all this growth resulted from California soil cleanup requirements that NASA did not anticipate. These NASA Centers Reported Increases or Decreases in Restoration Project Environmental Liabilities Greater Than $10 Million Between Fiscal Years 2014 and 2019 NASA's reported fiscal year 2019 environmental liabilities estimate for restoration projects does not include certain costs, and some factors may affect NASA's future environmental liabilities, potentially increasing or decreasing the federal government's fiscal exposure. Certain costs are not included in the fiscal year 2019 estimate because some projects are in a developing stage where NASA needs to gather more information to fully estimate cleanup costs. Further, NASA limits its restoration project estimates to 30 years, as the agency views anything beyond 30 years as not reasonably estimable. Sixty of NASA's 115 open restoration projects in fiscal year 2019 are expected to last longer than 30 years. With regard to factors that could affect future environmental liabilities, NASA is assessing its centers for contamination of some chemicals it had not previously identified but does not yet know the impact associated cleanup will have on the agency's liabilities in part because standards for cleaning up these chemicals do not yet exist. New cleanup requirements for emerging contaminants could increase NASA's environmental liabilities and create additional fiscal exposure for the federal government. Additionally, NASA is committed, through an agreement with the state of California, to clean soil at Santa Susana Field Laboratory to a certain standard, but the agency issued a decision in September 2020 to pursue a risk-based cleanup standard, which the state of California has opposed. According to NASA, a risk-based cleanup standard at Santa Susana Field Laboratory could decrease NASA's environmental liabilities and reduce the federal government's fiscal exposure by about $355 million. Decades of NASA's research for space exploration relied on some chemicals that can be hazardous to human health and the environment. NASA identified 14 centers around the country with hazardous chemicals that require environmental cleanup and restoration. NASA's Environmental Compliance and Restoration Program oversees the agency's environmental cleanup. NASA's environmental liabilities estimate is reported annually in the agency's financial statement. Federal accounting standards require agencies responsible for contamination to estimate and report their future cleanup costs when they are both probable and reasonably estimable. This report describes (1) NASA's environmental liabilities for restoration projects from fiscal years 2014 to 2019—the most recent data available at the time of our review—and (2) factors that could contribute to uncertainties in NASA's current or future environmental liabilities. GAO reviewed NASA financial statements, guidance, and other relevant reports and interviewed NASA officials from headquarters and three centers, selected because of changes in their reported liabilities. NASA provided technical comments on a draft of this report, which were incorporated as appropriate. For more information, contact Allison Bawden at (202) 512-3841 or firstname.lastname@example.org.[Read More…]
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- New York City Man Charged with Nearly $4 Million COVID-19 Relief Fraud Scheme and Money LaunderingBy Sam NewsMay 6, 2021A criminal complaint was filed in the District of New Jersey today charging a dual-resident of New York and Florida with fraudulently obtaining and laundering nearly $4 million in funds from the COVID-19 relief Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).[Read More…]
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