Nord Stream 2 and Potential Sanctionable Activity

Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State

As the President has said, Nord Stream 2 is a bad deal — for Germany, for Ukraine, and for our Central and Eastern European allies and partners.  The Department is tracking efforts to complete the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and is evaluating information regarding entities that appear to be involved.

As multiple U.S. administrations have made clear, this pipeline is a Russian geopolitical project intended to divide Europe and weaken European energy security. The sanctions legislation Congress passed in 2019 and expanded in 2020 has significant support from a bipartisan Congressional majority.

The Biden Administration is committed to complying with that legislation. The Department reiterates its warning that any entity involved in the Nord Stream 2 pipeline risks U.S. sanctions and should immediately abandon work on the pipeline.

More from: Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State

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    The 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. 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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. 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    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. 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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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    What GAO Found In April 2020, GAO identified 12 priority recommendations for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Since then, USDA has implemented two of those recommendations. The department publicized information on state agencies’ use of data matching to reduce recipient fraud. USDA also ensured its workforce data are more reliable. In July 2021, GAO identified one additional priority recommendation for USDA, bringing the total number to 11. These recommendations involve the following areas: protecting the safety of the food supply. reducing improper payments. strengthening protections for wage earners. improving oversight of federal assistance and awards. improving cybersecurity. USDA’s continued attention to these issues could lead to significant improvements in government operations. Why GAO Did This Study Priority open recommendations are the GAO recommendations that warrant priority attention from heads of key departments or agencies because their implementation could save large amounts of money; improve congressional and/or executive branch decision-making on major issues; eliminate mismanagement, fraud, and abuse; or ensure that programs comply with laws and funds are legally spent, among other benefits. Since 2015, GAO has sent letters to selected agencies to highlight the importance of implementing such recommendations. For more information, contact Mark Gaffigan at (202) 512-3841 or gaffiganm@gao.gov.  
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    In U.S GAO News
    As of August 20, 2020, the U.S. had over 5.5 million cumulative reported cases of COVID-19, and 158,000 reported deaths, according to federal agencies. The country also continues to experience serious economic repercussions and turmoil. Four relief laws, including the CARES Act, were enacted between March and July 2020 to provide appropriations for the response to COVID-19. The CARES Act includes a provision for GAO to report bimonthly on its ongoing monitoring and oversight efforts related to COVID-19. This second report examines federal spending on the COVID-19 response; indicators for monitoring public health and the economy; and the status of matters for congressional consideration and recommendations from GAO’s June 2020 report (GAO-20-625). GAO reviewed data through June 30, 2020 (the latest available) from USAspending.gov, a government website with data from government agencies. GAO also obtained, directly from the agencies, spending data, as of July 31, 2020, for the six largest spending areas, to the extent available. To develop the public health indicators, GAO reviewed research and federal guidance. To understand economic developments, GAO reviewed data from federal statistical agencies, the Federal Reserve, and Bloomberg Terminal, as well as economic research. To update the status of matters for congressional consideration and recommendations, GAO reviewed agency and congressional actions. In response to the national public health and economic threats caused by COVID-19, four relief laws making appropriations of about $2.6 trillion had been enacted as of July 31, 2020. Overall, federal obligations and expenditures government-wide of these COVID-19 relief funds totaled $1.5 trillion and $1.3 trillion, respectively, as of June 30, 2020. GAO also obtained preliminary data for six major spending areas as of July 31, 2020 (see table). COVID-19 Relief Appropriations, Obligations, and Expenditures for Six Major Spending Areas, as of July 2020 Spending area Appropriationsa ($ billions) Preliminary obligationsb ($ billions) Preliminary expendituresb ($ billions) Business Loan Programs 687.3 538.1 522.2c Economic Stabilization and Assistance to Distressed Sectors 500.0 30.4 19.2c Unemployment Insurance 376.4 301.1 296.8 Economic Impact Payments 282.0 273.5 273.5 Public Health and Social Services Emergency Fund 231.7 129.6 95.9 Coronavirus Relief Fund 150.0 149.5 149.5 Total for six spending areas 2,227.4 1,422.2 1,357.0 Source: GAO analysis of data from the Department of the Treasury, USAspending.gov, and applicable agencies. | GAO-20-708 aCOVID-19 relief appropriations reflect amounts appropriated under the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2020, Pub. L. No. 116-123, 134 Stat. 146; Families First Coronavirus Response Act, Pub. L. No. 116-127, 134 Stat. 178 (2020); CARES Act, Pub. L. No. 116-136, 134 Stat. 281 (2020); and Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act, Pub. L. No. 116-139, 134 Stat. 620 (2020). These data are based on appropriations warrant information provided by the Department of the Treasury as of July 31, 2020. These amounts could increase in the future for programs with indefinite appropriations, which are appropriations that, at the time of enactment, are for an unspecified amount. In addition, this table does not represent transfers of funds that federal agencies may make between appropriation accounts or transfers of funds they may make to other agencies. bObligations and expenditures data for July 2020 are based on preliminary data reported by applicable agencies. cThese expenditures relate to the loan subsidy costs (the loan’s estimated long-term costs to the United States government). The CARES Act included a provision for GAO to assess the impact of the federal response on public health and the economy. The following are examples of health care and economic indicators that GAO is monitoring. Health care. GAO’s indicators are intended to assess the nation’s immediate response to COVID-19 as it first took hold, gauge its recovery from the effects of the pandemic over the longer term, and determine the nation’s level of preparedness for future pandemics, involving subsequent waves of either COVID-19 or other infectious diseases. For example, to assess the sufficiency of testing—a potential indicator of the system’s response and recovery—GAO suggests monitoring the proportion of tests in a given population that are positive for infection. A higher positivity rate can indicate that testing is not sufficiently widespread to find all cases. That is higher positivity rates can indicate that testing has focused on those most likely to be infected and seeking testing because they have symptoms, and may not be detecting COVID-19 cases among individuals with no symptoms. Although there is no agreed-upon threshold for the test positivity rate, governments should target low positivity rates. The World Health Organization recommends a test positivity rate threshold of less than 5 percent over a 14-day period. As of August 12, 2020, 12 states and the District of Columbia had met this threshold (38 states had not). Resolve to Save Lives, another organization, recommends a threshold of less than 3 percent over a 7-day period, and 11 states and the District of Columbia had met this threshold (39 states had not) as of August 12, 2020. GAO also suggests monitoring mortality from all causes compared to historical norms as an indicator of the pandemic’s broad effect on health care outcomes. Mortality rates have tended to be consistent from year to year. This allows an estimation of how much mortality rose with the onset of the pandemic, and provides a baseline by which to judge a return to pre-COVID levels. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, about 125,000 more people died from all causes January 1–June 13 than would normally be expected (see figure). CDC Data on Higher-Than-Expected Weekly Mortality, January 1 through June 13, 2020 Note: The figure shows the number of deaths from all causes in a given week that exceeded the upper bound threshold of expected deaths calculated by CDC on the basis of variation in mortality experienced in prior years. Changes in the observed numbers of deaths in recent weeks should be interpreted cautiously as this figure relies on provisional data that are generally less complete in recent weeks. Data were accessed on July 16, 2020. Economy. GAO updated information on a number of indicators to facilitate ongoing and consistent monitoring of areas of the economy supported by the federal pandemic response, in particular the COVID-19 relief laws. These indicators suggest that economic conditions—including for workers, small businesses, and corporations—have improved modestly in recent months but remain much weaker than prior to the pandemic. In June and July initial regular unemployment insurance (UI) claims filed weekly averaged roughly 1.4 million (see figure), which was six and a half times higher than average weekly claims in 2019, but claims have decreased substantially since mid-March, falling to 971,000 in the week ending August 8, 2020. Increasing infections in some states and orders to once again close or limit certain businesses are likely to pose additional challenges for potentially fragile economic improvements, especially in affected sectors, such as the leisure and hospitality sector. National Weekly Initial Unemployment Insurance Claims, January 2019–July 2020 Note: See figure 5 in the report. As GAO reported in June, consistent with the urgency of responding to serious and widespread health issues and economic disruptions, federal agencies gave priority to moving swiftly where possible to distribute funds and implement new programs designed to help small businesses and the newly unemployed, for example. However, such urgency required certain tradeoffs in achieving transparency and accountability goals. To make mid-course corrections, GAO made three recommendations to federal agencies: To reduce the potential for duplicate payments from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP)—a program that provides guaranteed loans through lenders to small businesses—and unemployment insurance, GAO recommended that the Department of Labor (DOL), in consultation with the Small Business Administration (SBA) and the Department of the Treasury (Treasury), immediately provide information to state unemployment agencies that specifically addresses PPP loans, and the risk of improper unemployment insurance payments. DOL issued guidance on August 12, 2020, that, among other things, clarified that individuals working full-time and being paid through PPP are not eligible for UI. To recoup economic impact payments totaling more than $1.6 billion sent to decedents, GAO recommended that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) consider cost-effective options for notifying ineligible recipients of economic impact payments how to return payments. IRS has taken steps to address this recommendation. According to a Treasury official, nearly 70 percent of the payments sent to decedents have been recovered. However, GAO was unable to verify that amount before finalizing work on this report. GAO is working with Treasury to determine the number of payments sent to decedents that have been recovered. Treasury was considering sending letters to request the return of remaining outstanding payments but has not moved forward with this effort because, according to Treasury, Congress is considering legislation that would clarify or change payment eligibility requirements. To reduce the potential for fraud and ensure program integrity, GAO recommended that SBA develop and implement plans to identify and respond to risks in PPP to ensure program integrity, achieve program effectiveness, and address potential fraud. SBA has begun developing oversight plans for PPP but has not yet finalized or implemented them. In addition, to improve the government’s response efforts, GAO suggested three matters for congressional consideration: GAO urged Congress to take legislative action to require the Department of Transportation (DOT) to work with relevant agencies and stakeholders, such as HHS, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and international organizations, to develop a national aviation-preparedness plan to ensure safeguards are in place to limit the spread of communicable disease threats from abroad, while also minimizing any unnecessary interference with travel and trade. In early July 2020, DOT collaborated with HHS and DHS to issue guidance to airports and airlines for implementing measures to mitigate the public health risks associated with COVID-19, but it has not developed a preparedness plan for future communicable disease threats. DOT has maintained that HHS and DHS should lead such planning efforts as they are responsible for communicable disease response and preparedness planning, respectively. In June 2020, HHS stated that it is not in a position to develop a national aviation-preparedness plan as it does not have primary jurisdiction over the entire aviation sector or the relevant transportation expertise. In May 2020, DHS stated that it had reviewed its existing plans for pandemic preparedness and response activities and determined it is not best situated to develop a national aviation-preparedness plan. Without such a plan, the U.S. will not be as prepared to minimize and quickly respond to future communicable disease events. GAO also urged Congress to amend the Social Security Act to explicitly allow the Social Security Administration (SSA) to share its full death data with Treasury for data matching to help prevent payments to ineligible individuals. In June 2020, the Senate passed S.4104, referred to as the Stopping Improper Payments to Deceased People Act. If enacted, the bill would allow SSA to share these data with Treasury's Bureau of the Fiscal Service to avoid paying deceased individuals. Finally, GAO urged Congress to use GAO's Federal Medical Assistance Percentage (FMAP) formula for any future changes to the FMAP—the statutory formula according to which the federal government matches states' spending for Medicaid services—during the current or any future economic downturn. Congress has taken no action thus far on this issue. GAO incorporated technical comments received the Departments of Labor, Commerce, Health and Human Services, Transportation, and the Treasury; the Federal Reserve; Office of Management and Budget; and Internal Revenue Service. The Small Business Administration commented that GAO did not include information on actions taken and controls related to its loan forgiveness program or its plans for loan reviews. GAO plans to provide more information on these topics in its next CARES Act report. For more information, contact A. Nicole Clowers at (202) 512-7114 or clowersa@gao.gov.
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