Leader of Armed Home Invasion Robbery Crew Sentenced for RICO Conspiracy and Other Violent Crimes

A Texas man was sentenced to 40 years in prison for his leadership role in an armed home invasion robbery crew that traveled the United States targeting families of South Asian and East Asian descent.

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  • Native American Youth: Agencies Incorporated Almost All Leading Practices When Assessing Grant Programs That Could Prevent or Address Delinquency [Reissued with revisions on Aug. 27, 2020.]
    In U.S GAO News
    The Departments of Justice (DOJ), Health and Human Services (HHS), the Interior (Interior), and Education (Education) administered at least 38 grant programs from fiscal years 2015 through 2018 that could have helped prevent or address delinquency among Native American youth. These agencies made about $1.9 billion in awards to grantees through these programs during this period. These agencies incorporated almost all of the leading practices GAO identified for performance measurement or program evaluation when assessing the performance of selected grant programs. For example, HHS's Administration for Children and Families (ACF) incorporated 13 of the 14 leading practices for performance measurement but did not fully assess grantee data reliability for one of its programs. By developing a process to assess the reliability of grantee data contained in the annual performance reports that tribal recipients submit, ACF could obtain further assurance that it has an accurate representation of grantee performance. GAO also found that Interior's Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) did not conduct formal data reliability checks on performance data that grantees report and did not always collect performance reports from grantees in a timely manner for one of its programs. By developing a process to assess the reliability of a sample of grantee performance data and taking steps to alert grantees when they are late in submitting performance reports, BIE could better ensure that grantees are complying with the terms and conditions of the grant program and better understand how the program and its grantees are performing. Officials in all 12 interviews with tribes or tribal consortia GAO interviewed cited risk factors that contribute to juvenile delinquency in their communities. Number of Interviews in Which Tribal Officials Cited Risk Factors Contributing to Juvenile Delinquency Note: The figure includes the most common risk factors tribal officials cited for juvenile delinquency. While tribal officials cited restrictions placed on federal grant funding, difficulty communicating with program staff, and challenges hiring and retaining staff as barriers to implementing federal programs, they also identified promising practices, such as executing culturally relevant programs, for preventing or addressing juvenile delinquency. Federal and other studies have noted that exposure to violence and substance abuse make Native American youth susceptible to becoming involved with the justice system. GAO was asked to examine federal and tribal efforts to address juvenile delinquency and the barriers tribes face in doing so. This report examines (1) federal financial assistance targeting tribes that could prevent or address juvenile delinquency; (2) the extent to which federal agencies assess the performance of selected grant programs and incorporate leading practices; and (3) the juvenile delinquency challenges tribes report facing. GAO identified relevant grant programs during fiscal years 2015 through 2018—the most recent data available when GAO began the review. GAO analyzed documents and interviewed agency officials to determine how they assessed grant program performance and conducted interviews with 10 tribes and two tribal consortia to discuss challenges with delinquency. GAO is making three recommendations, including that relevant HHS and Interior offices develop a process to assess the reliability of tribal grantee performance information and that an Interior office take steps to alert grantees that are late in submitting progress reports. Interior concurred with the two recommendations. HHS disagreed with GAO's recommendation. GAO clarified the recommendation to HHS and continues to believe it is warranted. For more information, contact Gretta L. Goodwin, (202) 512-8777, or GoodwinG@gao.gov.
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  • Medicare Part B: Payments and Use for Selected New, High-Cost Drugs
    In U.S GAO News
    Hospital outpatient departments perform a wide range of procedures, including diagnostic and surgical procedures, which may use drugs that Medicare considers to function as supplies. If the drug is new, and its cost is high relative to Medicare's payment for the procedure, then hospitals can receive a separate “pass-through” payment for the drug in addition to Medicare's payment for the procedure. These pass-through payments are in effect for 2 to 3 years. When the pass-through payments expire, Medicare no longer pays separately for the drug, and payment for the drug is “packaged” with the payment for the related procedure. The payment rate for the procedure does not vary by whether or not the drug is used. Medicare intends this payment rate to be an incentive for hospitals to furnish services efficiently, such as using the most cost-efficient items that meet the patient's needs. Examples of Types of Drugs that Medicare Considers to Function as Supplies GAO's analysis of Medicare data showed that higher payments were associated with six of seven selected drugs when they were eligible for pass-through payments versus when their payments were packaged. For example, one drug used in cataract removal procedures was eligible for pass-through payments in 2017. That year, Medicare paid $1,824 for the procedure and $463 for the drug pass-through payment—a total payment of $2,287. If a hospital performed the same cataract removal procedure when the drug was packaged the following year, there was no longer a separate payment for the drug. Instead, Medicare paid $1,921 for the procedure whether or not the hospital used the drug. Of the seven selected drugs, GAO also reviewed differences in use for four of them that did not have limitations on Medicare coverage during the time frame of GAO's analysis, such as coverage that was limited to certain clinical trials. GAO found that hospitals' use of three of the four drugs was lower when payments for the drugs were packaged. This was consistent with the financial incentives created by the payment system. In particular, given the lower total payment for the drug and procedure when the drug is packaged, hospitals may have a greater incentive to use a lower-cost alternative for the procedure. Hospitals' use of a fourth drug increased regardless of payment status. The financial incentives for that drug appeared minimal because the total payment for it and its related procedure was about the same when it was eligible for pass-through payments and when packaged. Other factors that can affect use of the drugs include the use of the drugs for certain populations and whether hospitals put the drugs on their formularies, which guide, in part, whether the drug is used at that hospital. The Department of Health and Human Services reviewed a draft of this report and provided technical comments, which GAO incorporated as appropriate. Medicare makes “pass-through” payments under Medicare Part B when hospital outpatient departments use certain new, high-cost drugs. These temporary payments are in addition to Medicare's payments for the procedures using the drugs. They may help make the new drugs accessible for beneficiaries and also allow Medicare to collect information on the drugs' use and costs. The Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2018 included a provision for GAO to review the effect of Medicare's policy for packaging high-cost drugs after their pass-through payments have expired. This report describes (1) the payments associated with selected high-cost drugs when eligible for pass-through payments versus when packaged, and (2) hospitals' use of those drugs when eligible for pass-through payments versus when packaged. GAO reviewed federal regulations on pass-through payments and Medicare payment files for all seven drugs whose pass-through payments expired in 2017 or 2018 and that were subsequently packaged. All of these drugs met Medicare's definition for having a high cost relative to Medicare's payment rate for the procedure using the drug. GAO also reviewed Medicare claims data on the use of the drugs for 2017 through 2019 (the most recent available). To supplement this information, GAO also interviewed Medicare officials, as well officials from 11 organizations representing hospitals, physicians, and drug manufacturers, about payment rates, use, reporting, and clinical context for the drugs. For more information, contact James Cosgrove at (202) 512-7114 or cosgrovej@gao.gov.
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  • COVID-19: Critical Vaccine Distribution, Supply Chain, Program Integrity, and Other Challenges Require Focused Federal Attention
    In U.S GAO News
    Since 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 clowersa@gao.gov.
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  • Critical Infrastructure Protection: Treasury Needs to Improve Tracking of Financial Sector Cybersecurity Risk Mitigation Efforts
    In U.S GAO News
    The federal government has long identified the financial services sector as a critical component of the nation's infrastructure. The sector includes commercial banks, securities brokers and dealers, and providers of the key financial systems and services that support these functions. Altogether, the sector holds about $108 trillion in assets and faces a variety of cybersecurity-related risks. Key risks include (1) an increase in access to financial data through information technology service providers and supply chain partners; (2) a growth in sophistication of malware—software meant to do harm—and (3) an increase in interconnectivity via networks, the cloud, and mobile applications. Cyberattacks that exploit risks can occur against either public or private components of the sector. For example, in February 2016, hackers were able to install malware on the Bangladesh Central Bank's system through a service provider, which then directed the Federal Reserve Bank of New York to transfer money to accounts in other Asian countries. This attack resulted in the theft of approximately $81 million. Several industry groups and firms are taking steps to enhance the security and resilience of the U.S. financial services sector through a broad range of cyber risk mitigation efforts. These efforts include coordinating within the sector through groups such as the Financial Services Sector Coordinating Council and the Financial Systemic Analysis and Resilience Center, conducting industrywide incident response exercises, sharing threat and vulnerability information, developing and providing guidance in conducting risk assessments, and offering cybersecurity-related training. The Departments of Homeland Security and the Treasury and federal financial regulators are also taking multiple steps to support cybersecurity and resilience through risk mitigation efforts. Among other things, federal agencies provide cybersecurity expertise and conduct simulation exercises related to cyber incident response and recovery. Treasury, as the designated lead agency for the financial sector, plays a key role in supporting many of the efforts to enhance the sector's cybersecurity and resiliency. For example, Treasury's Assistant Secretary for Financial Institutions serves as the chair of the committee of government agencies with sector responsibilities, and Treasury coordinates federal agency efforts to improve the sector's cybersecurity and related communications. However, Treasury does not track efforts or prioritize them according to goals established by the sector for enhancing cybersecurity and resiliency. Treasury also has not fully implemented GAO's previous recommendation to establish metrics related to the value and results of the sector's risk mitigation efforts. Further, the 2016 sector-specific plan, which is intended to direct sector activities, does not identify ways to measure sector progress and is out of date. Among other things, the sector-specific plan lacks information on sector-related requirements laid out in the 2019 National Cyber Strategy Implementation Plan . Unless more widespread and detailed tracking and prioritization of efforts occurs according to the goals laid out in the sector-specific plan, the sector could be insufficiently prepared to deal with cyber-related risks, such as those caused by increased access to data by third parties. For decades, the federal government has taken steps to protect the nation's critical infrastructures. The financial services sector's reliance on information technology makes it a leading target for cyber-based attacks. Recent high-profile breaches at commercial entities have heightened concerns that data are not being adequately protected. Under the Comptroller General's authority, GAO initiated this review to (1) describe the key cyber-related risks facing the financial sector; (2) describe steps the financial services industry is taking to share information on and address risks to its sector; and (3) assess steps federal agencies are taking to enhance the security and resilience of the sector. GAO analyzed relevant reports and information to determine risks and mitigation efforts and compared agency efforts against federal policies and guidance. GAO also interviewed officials at 16 private sector entities, two self-regulatory organizations, and eight federal agencies, including the Department of the Treasury. GAO is making recommendations to Treasury to track and prioritize the sector's cyber risk mitigation efforts, and to update the sector's plan with metrics for measuring progress and information on how sector efforts will meet sector goals and requirements, including those contained within the National Cyber Strategy Implementation Plan. Treasury generally agreed with the recommendations. For more information, contact Nick Marinos at (202) 512-9342 or marinosn@gao.gov or Michael Clements at (202) 512-7763 or ClementsM@gao.gov.
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  • Sexual Harassment and Assault: Guidance Needed to Ensure Consistent Tracking, Response, and Training for DOD Civilians
    In U.S GAO News
    The Department of Defense (DOD) has taken steps to track reports of sexual harassment and sexual assault involving its federal civilian employees, but its visibility over both types of incidents is hindered by guidance and information-sharing challenges. While employees may not report all incidents for a variety of reasons, DOD also lacks visibility over those incidents that have been reported. For example, from fiscal years 2015 through 2019, DOD recorded 370 civilian employees as victims of sexual assault and 199 civilian employees as alleged offenders. However, these data do not include all incidents of sexual assault reported over this time period. Specifically, based on DOD guidance, examples of incidents that could be excluded from these data include those involving civilian employee victims (1) occurring in the continental United States, (2) employed by DOD components other than the military services, such as defense agencies, and (3) who are also military dependents. Without guidance that addresses these areas, DOD does not know the extent to which its civilian workforce has reported work-related sexual assault worldwide. Number of Department of Defense Federal Civilian Employees Recorded as Victims or Alleged Offenders in Reported Sexual Assault Incidents, Fiscal Years 2015-2019 While DOD has developed policies and procedures to respond to and resolve sexual harassment and sexual assault incidents involving federal civilian employees, gaps exist. For example, DOD issued guidance in June 2020 directing components to establish anti-harassment programs, but it lacks details regarding how such programs should be structured. Without clarifying guidance, components can establish programs that do not align with U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidance for model anti-harassment programs. Additionally, GAO found that DOD civilian employees' ability to make restricted reports of sexual assault—confidential disclosures that do not initiate official investigations, but allow the victim to receive DOD-provided sexual assault support services—varies across components. According to DOD officials, they have not taken action to resolve this variation due to conflicts with federal statute, among other things. By reporting to and requesting any needed actions from Congress to resolve any conflicts with statute, the department can alleviate such inconsistencies and minimize legal risks for DOD components. With nearly 900,000 federal civilian employees around the world, DOD has responsibilities for preventing and responding to sexual harassment and assault within its workforce. In fiscal year 2018, DOD estimated that about 49,700 civilian employees experienced sexual harassment and about 2,500 civilian employees experienced work-related sexual assault in the prior year. House Report 116-120 included a provision for GAO to review DOD's prevention of and response to sexual harassment and assault involving DOD federal civilian employees. GAO's report examines, among other things, the extent to which DOD has (1) visibility over such reported incidents, and (2) developed and implemented policies and procedures to respond to and resolve these incidents. GAO reviewed policies and guidance; analyzed program data from fiscal years 2015 through 2019; interviewed officials at a nongeneralizable sample of five military installations; evaluated DOD training materials; and interviewed DOD, service, and civilian officials. GAO is making 19 recommendations, including that DOD issue guidance for comprehensive tracking of civilian work-related sexual assaults, enhance guidance on the structure of anti-harassment programs for civilians, and report to and request any needed actions from Congress on the ability of civilian employees to make restricted reports of sexual assault. As discussed in the report, DOD generally concurred with the recommendations. For more information, contact Brenda S. Farrell at (202) 512-3604 or farrellb@gao.gov.
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  • Fixed-Price-Incentive Contracts: DOD Has Increased Their Use but Should Assess Contributions to Outcomes
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    The Department of Defense (DOD) has encouraged the use of fixed-price-incentive (FPI) contracts where appropriate. These contracts can provide defense contractors with a profit incentive for effective cost control and performance depending on how they are structured. Over the 10-year period from fiscal years 2010 through 2019, obligations on FPI contracts for major defense acquisition programs (MDAPs) grew to account for almost half of the $65 billion in obligations for fiscal year 2019. Percentage of Obligations by Contract Type for Major Defense Acquisition Programs from Fiscal Years 2010 through 2019 DOD guidance, including Better Buying Power initiatives, influenced DOD's use of FPI contracts over the last decade for the selected contracts GAO reviewed. In addition, when selecting a contract type, contracting officers also considered factors including the availability of cost or pricing data, previous experience with the contractor, and the previously used contract type. DOD has not assessed the extent to which use of FPI contracts has contributed to achieving desired cost and schedule performance outcomes. DOD spends billions of dollars annually using fixed-price type contracts to acquire its MDAPs, among other things. In 2010, DOD's Better Buying Power guidance encouraged the use of FPI contracts as a way to obtain greater efficiency and productivity in defense spending. Congress included a provision in statute for GAO to report on DOD's use of fixed-price type contracts, including FPI. This report examines (1) the extent to which DOD has awarded FPI contracts associated with MDAPs from fiscal years 2010 through 2019, and (2) the factors that influenced DOD's decision to use FPI contracts and the extent to which DOD assesses their use, among other objectives. GAO analyzed government contracting data by contract type for fiscal years 2010 through 2019 on contracts for 101 MDAPs. GAO further analyzed a non-generalizable sample of 12 contracts including six FPI and six firm-fixed-price (two of each type from each of the three military departments); conducted file reviews; reviewed policy documentation; and interviewed DOD officials. GAO recommends that DOD conduct an assessment of its use of FPI contracts for major defense acquisition programs, including the extent to which share lines and other contract elements contributed to achieving desired cost and schedule performance outcomes. DOD agreed with GAO's recommendation. For more information, contact W. William Russell at (202) 512-4841 or russellw@gao.gov.
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  • Data Security: Recent K-12 Data Breaches Show That Students Are Vulnerable to Harm
    In U.S GAO News
    A cybersecurity incident is an event that actually or potentially jeopardizes a system or the information it holds. According to GAO's analysis of K-12 Cybersecurity Resource Center (CRC) data from July 2016 to May 2020, thousands of K-12 students were affected by 99 reported data breaches, one type of cybersecurity incident in which data are compromised. Students' academic records, including assessment scores and special education records, were the most commonly compromised type of information (58 breaches). Records containing students' personally identifiable information (PII), such as Social Security numbers, were the second most commonly compromised type of information (36 breaches). Financial and cybersecurity experts say some PII can be sold on the black market and can cause students significant financial harm. Breaches were either accidental or intentional, although sometimes the intent was unknown, with school staff, students, and cybercriminals among those responsible (see figure). Staff were responsible for most of the accidental breaches (21 of 25), and students were responsible for most of the intentional breaches (27 of 52), most frequently to change grades. Reports of breaches by cybercriminals were rare but included attempts to steal PII. Although the number of students affected by a breach was not always available, examples show that thousands of students have had their data compromised in a single breach. Responsible Actor and Intent of Reported K-12 Student Data Breaches, July 1, 2016-May 5, 2020 Notes: The actor or the intent may not be discernible in public reports. For this analysis, a cybercriminal is defined as an actor external to the school district who breaches a data system for malicious reasons. Of the 287 school districts affected by reported student data breaches, larger, wealthier, and suburban school districts were disproportionately represented, according to GAO's analysis. Cybersecurity experts GAO spoke with said one explanation for this is that some of these districts may use more technology in schools, which could create more opportunities for breaches to occur. When a student's personal information is disclosed, it can lead to physical, emotional, and financial harm. Organizations are vulnerable to data security risks, including over 17,000 public school districts and approximately 98,000 public schools. As schools and districts increasingly rely on complex information technology systems for teaching, learning, and operating, they are collecting more student data electronically that can put a student's information, including PII, at risk of disclosure. The closure of schools and the sudden transition to distance learning across the country due to the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic also heightened attention on K-12 cybersecurity. GAO was asked to review the security of K-12 students' data. This report examines (1) what is known about recently reported K-12 cybersecurity incidents that compromised student data, and (2) the characteristics of school districts that experienced these incidents. GAO analyzed data from July 1, 2016 to May 5, 2020 from CRC (the most complete source of information on K-12 data breaches). CRC is a non-federal resource sponsored by an educational technology organization that has tracked reported K-12 cybersecurity incidents since 2016. GAO also analyzed 2016-2019 Department of Education data on school district characteristics (the most recent available), and interviewed experts knowledgeable about cybersecurity. We incorporated technical comments from the agencies as appropriate. For more information, contact Jacqueline M. Nowicki at (617) 788-0580 or nowickij@gao.gov.
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  • Telecommunications: FCC Has Implemented the Lifeline National Verifier but Should Improve Consumer Awareness and Experience
    In U.S GAO News
    As of June 2020, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) required consumers nationwide to use the Lifeline National Verifier (Verifier), a centralized process and data system, to check their eligibility for Lifeline. Because consumers who participate in certain federal benefits programs qualify for discounted phone and internet service through Lifeline, the Verifier checks state and federal benefits databases to verify consumers' eligibility. The Verifier also includes a manual review process for consumers to submit documents proving their eligibility if they cannot be found in a database. As of November 2020, the Verifier had connections with databases in 20 states and 2 federal agencies. GAO found that although consumers in states without state database connections had the same likelihood of actually meeting eligibility requirements as consumers in states with such connections, they were less likely to be found eligible for Lifeline through the Verifier (see figure). Average Eligibility Determination for New Lifeline Applicants in States with and without State Database Connections to the Lifeline National Verifier, June 2018 through June 2020 FCC coordinated with state and federal stakeholders to implement the Verifier. However, stakeholders told GAO that many eligible consumers are not aware of the Verifier or Lifeline. Consumers may lack this awareness because FCC's consumer education planning did not always align with key practices, such as developing consistent, clear messages and researching target audiences. As a result, eligible consumers may not apply for Lifeline. Moreover, while FCC originally envisioned tribal governments and organizations assisting residents of tribal lands with the Verifier, it has not provided them with quality information to effectively do so. Although FCC reported that the Verifier is meeting its goal of improving the consumer experience, GAO found that the manual review process, which FCC used to determine the eligibility of more than half of applicants in many states, is challenging for consumers. However, FCC does not collect complete information on consumers' experience with this process, and thus is limited in its ability to identify and address the challenges consumers face. Such challenges likely contributed to eligible consumers giving up on their applications. For example, we found that more than two-thirds of applicants who underwent manual review between June 2018 and June 2020 did not complete their applications. FCC's Lifeline program discounts phone and internet service for eligible low-income consumers. In 2019, FCC authorized $982 million in support for 6.9 million eligible consumers. FCC created the Verifier with the stated goals of reducing fraud and costs and improving the consumer experience. The Verifier includes an online application, connections to state and federal benefits databases, and a standardized manual review process. GAO was asked to review FCC's implementation of the Verifier. This report examines: (1) the status of the Verifier; (2) FCC's coordination with stakeholders and efforts to educate consumers and facilitate tribal stakeholders' involvement; and (3) the extent to which the Verifier is meeting its goals. GAO reviewed FCC orders and documentation; analyzed Verifier performance and Lifeline subscriber data; interviewed FCC and other agency officials, and selected industry, state, tribal, and consumer stakeholders; and surveyed state officials. Stakeholders were selected to obtain a variety of non-generalizable viewpoints. GAO is making six recommendations, including that FCC develop a consumer education plan, provide quality information to tribal organizations, and collect information on consumers' experience with the manual review process. FCC agreed to take steps to address all of GAO's recommendations. For more information, contact Andrew Von Ah at (202)-512-2834 or vonaha@gao.gov.
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  • Aviation Safety: Actions Needed to Evaluate Changes to FAA’s Enforcement Policy on Safety Standards
    In U.S GAO News
    The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) directed individual offices to implement the Compliance Program, and FAA has increasingly used compliance actions rather than enforcement actions to address violations of safety standards since starting the Compliance Program. FAA revised agency-wide guidance in September 2015 to emphasize using compliance actions, such as counseling or changes to policies. Compliance actions are to be used when a regulated entity is willing and able to comply and enforcement action is not required or warranted, e.g., for repeated violations, according to FAA guidance. FAA then directed its offices—for example, Flight Standards Service and Drug Abatement Division—to implement the Compliance Program as appropriate, given their different responsibilities and existing processes. Under the Compliance Program, data show that selected FAA offices have made increasing use of compliance actions. Total Number of Federal Aviation Administration Enforcement Actions and Number of Compliance Actions Closed for Selected Program Offices, Fiscal Years 2012-2019 No specific FAA office or entity oversees the Compliance Program. FAA tasked a working group to lead some initial implementation efforts. However, the group no longer regularly discusses the Compliance Program, and no office or entity was then assigned oversight authority. As a result, FAA is not positioned to identify and share best practices or other valuable information across offices. FAA established goals for the Compliance Program—to promote the highest level of safety and compliance with standards and to foster an open, transparent exchange of data. FAA, however, has not taken steps to evaluate if or determine how the program accomplishes these goals. Key considerations for agency enforcement decisions state that an agency should establish an evaluation plan to determine if its enforcement policy achieves desired goals. Three of eight FAA offices have started to evaluate the effects of the Compliance Program, but two offices have not yet started. Three other offices do not plan to do so—in one case, because FAA has not told the office to. FAA officials generally believe the Compliance Program is achieving its safety goals based on examples of its use. However, without an evaluation, FAA will not know if the Compliance Program is improving safety or having other effects—intended or unintended. FAA supports the safety of the U.S. aviation system by ensuring air carriers, pilots, and other regulated entities comply with safety standards. In 2015, FAA announced a new enforcement policy with a more collaborative and problem-solving approach called the Compliance Program. Under the program, FAA emphasizes using compliance actions, for example, counseling or training, to address many violations more efficiently, according to FAA. Enforcement actions such as civil penalties are reserved for more serious violations, such as when a violation is reckless or intentional. The FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 included a provision that GAO review FAA's Compliance Program. This report examines (1) how FAA implemented and used the Compliance Program and (2) how FAA evaluates the effectiveness of the program. GAO analyzed FAA data on enforcement actions agency-wide and on compliance actions for three selected offices for fiscal years 2012 to 2019 (4 years before and after program start).GAO also reviewed FAA guidance and interviewed FAA officials, including those from the eight offices that oversee compliance with safety standards. GAO is making three recommendations including that FAA assign authority to oversee the Compliance Program and evaluate the effectiveness of the program in meeting goals. FAA concurred with the recommendations. For more information, contact Heather Krause at (202) 512-2834 or krauseh@gao.gov.
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  • The Nation’s Fiscal Health: Effective Use of Fiscal Rules and Targets
    In U.S GAO News
    In fiscal year 2019, debt held by the public reached 79 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). The government's fiscal response to COVID-19 combined with the severe economic contraction from the pandemic will substantially increase federal debt. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projected that debt held by the public will reach 98 percent of GDP by the end of fiscal year 2020. The nation's fiscal challenges will require attention once the economy has substantially recovered and public health goals have been attained. GAO has previously reported that a long-term plan is needed to put the government on a sustainable fiscal path. Other countries have used well-designed fiscal rules and targets—which constrain fiscal policy by controlling factors like expenditures or revenue—to contain excessive deficits. For example, Germany's constitution places limits on its deficits. The U.S. federal government has previously enacted fiscal rules, such as those in the Budget Control Act of 2011. However, current fiscal rules have not effectively addressed the misalignment between spending and revenues over time. GAO identified key considerations to help Congress if it were to adopt new fiscal rules and targets, as part of a long-term plan for fiscal sustainability (see table). Key Considerations for Designing, Implementing, and Enforcing Fiscal Rules and Targets Setting clear goals and objectives can anchor a country's fiscal policy. Fiscal rules and targets can help ensure that spending and revenue decisions align with agreed-upon goals and objectives. The weight given to tradeoffs among simplicity, flexibility, and enforceability depends on the goals a country is trying to achieve with a fiscal rule. In addition, there are tradeoffs between the types and combinations of rules, and the time frames over which the rules apply. The degree to which fiscal rules and targets are binding, such as being supported through a country's constitution or nonbinding political agreements, can impact their permanence, as well as the extent to which ongoing political commitment is needed to uphold them. Integrating fiscal rules and targets into budget discussions can contribute to their ongoing use and provide for a built-in enforcement mechanism. The budget process can include reviews of fiscal rules and targets. Fiscal rules and targets with limited, well-defined exemptions, clear escape clauses for events such as national emergencies, and adjustments for the economic cycle can help a country address future crises. Institutions supporting fiscal rules and targets need clear roles and responsibilities for supporting their implementation and measuring their effectiveness. Independently analyzed data and assessments can help institutions monitor compliance with fiscal rules and targets. Having clear, transparent fiscal rules and targets that a government communicates to the public and that the public understands can contribute to a culture of fiscal transparency and promote fiscal sustainability for the country. Source: GAO analysis of literature review and interviews. | GAO-20-561 Our nation faces serious challenges at a time when the federal government is highly leveraged in debt by historical norms. The imbalance between revenue and spending built into current law and policy have placed the nation on an unsustainable long-term fiscal path. Fiscal rules and targets can be used to help frame and control the overall results of spending and revenue decisions that affect the debt. GAO was asked to review fiscal rules and targets. This report (1) assesses the extent to which the federal government has taken action to contribute to long-term fiscal sustainability through fiscal rules and targets, and (2) identifies key considerations for designing, implementing, and enforcing fiscal rules and targets in the U.S. GAO compared current and former U.S. fiscal rules to literature on the effective use of rules and targets; reviewed CBO reports and relevant laws; and interviewed experts. GAO conducted case studies of national fiscal rules in Australia, Germany, and the Netherlands. Congress should consider establishing a long-term fiscal plan that includes fiscal rules and targets, such as a debt-to-GDP target, and weigh GAO's key considerations to ensure proper design, implementation, and enforcement of these rules and targets. The Department of the Treasury and other entities provided technical comments, which GAO incorporated as appropriate. For more information, contact Jeff Arkin, at (202) 512-6806 or arkinj@gao.gov.
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