Office of the Spokesperson
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken is traveling to San Jose on June 1-2, 2021, to a meeting of the Central American Integration System (SICA) convened by Costa Rican President Carlos Alvarado Quesada. In Costa Rica, he will meet with President Alvarado and Foreign Minister Rodolfo Solano Quirós to discuss the strong U.S.-Costa Rica partnership and to advance collaboration on regional and global issues, including migration, counternarcotics, human rights, and climate change.
A Relationship Based on Shared Values and Commitments
- Costa Rica, a strong democracy of more than five million people with deep ties to the United States, is important to key U.S. goals in the region and is committed to continued close cooperation with the United States. It has an open trade and investment climate, and recently became the 38th member of the OECD. It is also one of the strongest and most reliable voices in Latin America on human rights and rule of law, and has been a superb partner in the fight against transnational crime and drug trafficking.
- The United States is Costa Rica’s top trading partner, accounting for around 40 percent of both imports and exports. The United States is also Costa Rica’s top source of foreign direct investment, reaching $1.92 billion in 2019 (70% of total FDI) . There are currently more than 200 U.S. companies in Costa Rica that collectively employ more than 94,000 people, or nearly 84 percent of all jobs created by multinational companies in Costa Rica.
- Costa Rica is a champion of human rights and democratic norms across the region, including through its active role in the Organization of American States (OAS). Costa Rica has condemned fraudulent parliamentary elections in Venezuela and supported the OAS resolution calling for electoral reform in Nicaragua. Additionally, Costa Rica hosts more than 450,000 Nicaraguans, including 110,000 people who fled Nicaragua after the 2018 political crisis, many of whom are currently seeking refugee status in Costa Rica. Costa Rica also hosts nearly 30,000 Venezuelan migrants and refugees. The Costa Rican government has extended several additional protections, work permits, and travel documentation to some segments of this population, a valuable humanitarian response to Venezuelans and Nicaraguans who cannot return to their country of origin given continued instability.
- Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, approximately 120,000 private American citizens, including many retirees, resided in the country; more than 1.4 million American citizens visited Costa Rica annually. Pre-pandemic, more than 1,100 Costa Ricans studied at U.S. institutions of higher education annually. More than 8,000 U.S. students study in Costa Rica every year, and Costa Rica is the number one destination in Latin America for U.S. study abroad programs.
- Costa Rica is a valuable counter-narcotics partner. In 2020, Costa Rican security services seized more than 71 metric tons of drugs, including a record 18.6 metric tons found in commercial containers. U.S.-donated interceptor vessels, as well as equipment and training provided to the Costa Rican Coast Guard, along with joint operations, led to a record number of maritime seizures in 2020.
- The United States has partnered with Costa Rica in an effort to bring the COVID-19 pandemic to a swift end. U.S. assistance of more than $4 million to Costa Rica includes personal protective equipment, medical supplies, hygiene supplies to support in-person education, and mobile hospitals.
- Former Elkhart, Indiana Resident Sentenced to Over Six Years in Prison for Financing of TerrorismBy Sam NewsNovember 9, 2020Samantha Marie Elhassani, aka Samantha Sally, 35, formerly of Elkhart, Indiana, was sentenced by U.S. District Court Judge Philip P. Simon to 78 months in prison and three years of supervised release after pleading guilty to Financing Terrorism, announced Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Indiana Thomas L. Kirsch II, FBI Assistant Director of the Counterterrorism Division Jill Sanborn, and FBI Special Agent in Charge of the Indianapolis field office Paul Keenan.[Read More…]
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- VA Real Property: Preliminary Observations on Challenges Limiting VA’s Ability to Effectively Manage Its AssetsBy Sam NewsJune 10, 2021What GAO Found GAO has identified key characteristics of an asset management framework designed to optimize funding and decision-making related to capital assets. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) continues to have challenges meeting at least three of these key characteristics. Staffing resources. This key characteristic calls for organizational leadership to provide the necessary resources for asset management to succeed. Previously, VA officials described problems resulting from low levels of staffing resources, including project delays and difficulties in managing projects. VA has taken some actions to improve staffing levels, such as establishing special salary rates for engineers, and VA's vacancy rate for general engineers has improved, decreasing from 17.2 percent in fiscal year 2019 to 12.6 percent in fiscal year 2020. VA officials, however, continue to describe staffing difficulties in planning and executing projects and limits on the number of projects that facilities can undertake. Communication and collaboration. This key characteristic calls for organizations to promote a culture of information-sharing across traditional agency boundaries to help ensure that agencies make effective, enterprise-wide decisions regarding their assets. VA has taken steps to improve communication among offices with asset management responsibilities, such as by issuing an asset management directive that VA officials said would help to facilitate such collaboration. However, in current work GAO has found instances of insufficient communication, such as lack of (1) collaboration early in project development between local offices and the Office of Construction and Facilities Management and (2) coordination between construction offices and the Office of Information and Technology when bringing facilities online. Measurement and evaluation. This key characteristic calls for agencies to continuously evaluate the performance of their asset management systems and implement necessary improvements to optimize the assets' value and ensure the assets reflect the organization's current goals. VA previously developed goals and measures for its program of inspections to identify maintenance and repair needs in health care settings. However, currently VA lacks goals with related measures that would evaluate its asset management processes and point the way to necessary improvements. Why GAO Did This Study VA manages a vast portfolio of real property assets, including a healthcare system that provides care at 171 VA medical centers and 1,112 outpatient sites to over 9 million veterans enrolled in the VA health care program. VA has pressing infrastructure needs, including adapting to changes in veterans' demographics and maintaining or replacing aging facilities. GAO's key characteristics of an asset management framework state that effectively managing assets requires, among other things, maintaining leadership support that provides the necessary resources; a collaborative organizational culture; and a system for evaluating and improving asset management performance. However, GAO's previous and ongoing work has found that VA continues to face challenges on these fronts. Although VA has implemented some GAO recommendations, several priority recommendations remain outstanding in areas related to asset management, such as staffing and capital planning. GAO was asked to testify about VA's management of its capital asset portfolio. This statement summarizes GAO's findings from prior reports and preliminary observations from ongoing work examining VA's capital asset management. In ongoing work, GAO reviewed VA documentation and interviewed officials from VA headquarters offices involved in asset management. GAO also interviewed personnel at a selection of eight VA medical centers and seven regional offices and from four Veterans Service Organizations about VA's asset management. For more information, contact Andrew Von Ah at (202) 512-2834 or email@example.com.[Read More…]
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- Countering Violent Extremism: DHS Can Further Enhance Its Strategic Planning and Data Governance EffortsBy Sam NewsJuly 21, 2021What GAO Found DHS's 2019 Strategic Framework for Countering Terrorism and Targeted Violence and the related plans—collectively referred to as the strategy—outline the department's vision for all DHS counterterrorism activities. In prior work, GAO has identified seven elements of a comprehensive strategy. GAO found that DHS's strategy contains some but not all of the key elements (see figure). For example, GAO found that DHS's strategy included a mission statement, and a set of goals that were in turn linked to objectives and priority actions. However, the strategy did not include a discussion of external factors such as how the economy, demographics, or emerging technologies may affect the department in meeting its goals. By identifying and assessing such external factors, DHS would be better positioned to proactively mitigate such factors or plan for contingencies, if needed. Extent to Which DHS's Strategy for Countering Terrorism and Targeted Violence Included the Seven Elements of a Comprehensive Strategy DHS has taken some steps to establish a data governance framework, which helps ensure that an agency's data assets are transparent, accessible, and of sufficient quality to support its mission. For example, DHS established a data governance council to manage various data priority areas, however it has not yet completed actions to include targeted violence and terrorism prevention data into its department-wide framework. DHS has already identified some data challenges, such as the lack of comprehensive, national-level statistics on terrorism and targeted violence that underscore the need for a data governance framework. By incorporating targeted violence and terrorism prevention data into its broader data governance framework, DHS would be better able to leverage data to support and inform its prevention efforts, including building effective policy to address the threats and trends it identifies in the data. Why GAO Did This Study Data collected through the Extremist Crime Database show that there were 81 fatal violent extremist attacks in the United States from 2010 through 2020, resulting in 240 deaths. Since 2010, DHS has developed strategic initiatives that address targeted violence and terrorism prevention, which include efforts to counter violent extremism, among other things. GAO was asked to review DHS's longer-term efforts to prevent terrorism and targeted violence. This report examines the extent to which (1) DHS's 2019 strategy to address targeted violence and terrorism prevention includes key elements of a comprehensive strategy, and (2) DHS has developed a data governance framework to help implement its strategy. GAO reviewed DHS documentation and compared DHS's strategy to identified elements of a comprehensive strategy, and compared DHS's efforts to develop a data governance framework to federal requirements for implementing data governance.[Read More…]
- Small Business Innovation Research: Three Agencies Made Awards to Businesses Majority-Owned by Investment Companies and FundsBy Sam NewsJanuary 29, 2021Under the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, participating agencies can make awards to small businesses majority-owned by multiple venture capital operating companies, hedge funds, or private equity firms (investment companies and funds). In fiscal years 2019 and 2020, four of the 11 agencies participating in the program received proposals from small businesses majority-owned by investment companies and funds (i.e., qualified small businesses), and three of the four made awards to such small businesses. Specifically, the Department of Health and Human Services' National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Department of the Navy within the Department of Defense (DOD), and the Department of Education made a combined 45 awards worth $31.6 million to qualified small businesses during this period. As in previous years, NIH made the most awards and awarded the most funds to qualified small businesses in fiscal years 2019 and 2020. The Department of Energy's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy opened its SBIR awards to qualified small businesses, but did not issue any awards to them during fiscal years 2019 and 2020. Since 2011, when qualified small businesses became eligible for SBIR awards, participating SBIR agencies have considered whether to allow qualified small businesses to participate in the program. Consistent with what GAO found in December 2018, in fiscal years 2019 and 2020, agencies cited several reasons for not allowing qualified small businesses to participate in their SBIR program. For example, officials at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Department of Homeland Security said that they did not pursue the option because qualified small businesses have not expressed much interest in their SBIR programs. In contrast, two component agencies within DOD—the Departments of the Navy and the Air Force—decided to allow qualified small businesses to receive awards and the Department of the Army within DOD was considering doing so. For example, Air Force program officials told us they found that providing SBIR funding to qualified small businesses would expand the Air Force's investment in cutting-edge technologies with both commercial and military uses. NIH—the agency that has made the majority of awards to qualified small businesses—has continued to make awards to qualified small businesses in its SBIR program, as these businesses are subject to the same standard reporting requirements as all other SBIR award recipients. NIH officials also noted that SBIR recipients provide information on specific project impacts, such as technology transfer and commercialization activities, and NIH cited development of a long-release capsule for medication as an example of a successful outcome from an award to a qualified small business. The SBIR program enables federal agencies to support research and development (R&D) projects carried out by small businesses. Participating agencies are required to spend a certain percentage of their extramural R&D obligations on their SBIR program each year. Eleven federal agencies participate in the SBIR program. To qualify for SBIR awards, a small business must meet certain ownership and other eligibility criteria. The Small Business Act, as amended, authorizes agencies to allow participation in their SBIR programs by qualified small businesses. Upon providing a written determination to the Administrator of the Small Business Administration (SBA)—the agency that oversees the SBIR program—and specified congressional committees, agencies may make SBIR awards to qualified small businesses. The Small Business Act, as amended, includes a provision for GAO to conduct a study of the impact of requirements relating to the involvement of investment companies and funds in the SBIR program and submit a report to Congress regarding the study every 3 years. GAO's first review covered fiscal years 2013 and 2014, and in December 2018, GAO issued its second report on this issue, for fiscal years 2015 through 2018. This third report addresses (1) SBIR participating agencies' awards to small businesses that are majority-owned by multiple investment companies and funds in fiscal years 2019 and 2020 and (2) reasons participating agencies cited for allowing or not allowing the participation of qualified small businesses in the SBIR program. GAO reviewed agencies' data on the participation of qualified small businesses and conducted interviews with or obtained written answers from program managers from the 11 participating agencies and SBA. For more information, contact Candice N. Wright at (202) 512-6888 or firstname.lastname@example.org.[Read More…]
- Georgia Man Sentenced to 57 Months in Prison for Tax FraudBy Sam NewsJune 7, 2021A federal district court in Cincinnati, Ohio, sentenced an Atlanta, Georgia, man to 57 months in prison today for tax evasion. This sentence included an enhancement for failing to report income from drug trafficking.[Read More…]
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- Federal Prison Industries: Actions Needed to Evaluate Program EffectivenessBy Sam NewsJuly 30, 2020The First Step Act of 2018 made new, nonfederal markets and potential buyers available to Federal Prison Industries (FPI), a government corporation organized within the Bureau of Prisons (BOP); however, various challenges could limit FPI's ability to sell to customers in these markets. FPI makes apparel, personal protective equipment, and furniture, among other products. FPI may now sell to the District of Columbia government, including, for example, to its firefighters; nonfederal, governmental entities for use in correctional settings or in response to a disaster or emergency, such as local jails and first responders; and nonprofit organizations, such as universities. However, a lack of information makes it difficult to estimate the dollar value of these new markets. The following figure depicts the new markets made available to FPI. New Markets for Federal Prison Industries' Products under the First Step Act Data on the size of most of the new markets are very limited. For example, GAO found no existing national information to help estimate the size and scope of relevant spending by nonfederal entities on disaster relief and emergencies. Also, challenges related to state and local government operations, for example, could limit FPI's ability to sell products in the new markets made available under the First Step Act. Specifically, state-level prison industries and in-state vendors often have preferential access to many of the procurement markets now available to FPI. FPI and the private sector share some similar operating requirements, such as those related to keeping workers safe. They also face different requirements and business practices, such as those related to the legal framework, security, and costs. Available data indicate that buyers are generally satisfied with the delivery and quality of FPI products. GAO analyzed 231 performance reports on FPI in the federal government's database for contractor performance, as of August 2019. Customers rated FPI's performance in the delivery schedule and quality categories as exceptional, very good, or satisfactory on about 80 and 90 percent, respectively, of performance reports. There were too few ratings on cost to analyze them. FPI aims to assist inmates in their reentry into society by providing marketable job skills, but BOP has not reviewed FPI's impact on recidivism in over 2 decades. BOP relies on outdated studies that assessed the impact of FPI on inmates released in the 1980s. In January 2020, BOP cited a 1992 study as the basis for the Attorney General's designation of FPI as an Evidence-Based Recidivism Reduction Program under the First Step Act 0f 2018 . BOP made a plan to evaluate FPI but the plan's timeline passed and the BOP has not set a new one. Without an updated plan for evaluating FPI, BOP continues to rely on outdated evaluations of FPI and has limited information about FPI's effectiveness amidst changes to its inmate population Additionally, while BOP has reported some descriptive statistics on recidivism rates, it has not developed a goal. Without a timeline for evaluation and a goal for reducing recidivism, BOP's ability to assess the effectiveness of FPI will be limited. FPI is a government owned corporation that, as a national reentry program, manages, trains, and rehabilitates inmates through employment. FPI sells inmate-produced goods and services primarily to federal government agencies. The First Step Act of 2018 authorized FPI to sell its products to new markets. A provision in the First Step Act of 2018 required GAO to review various aspects of FPI. This report addresses (1) the potential size and scope of the additional markets made available to FPI under the First Step Act; (2) the similarities and differences in selected requirements and business practices of FPI and private sector sellers of products and services; (3) customers' satisfaction with FPI regarding quality, price, and timely delivery of its products and services; and (4) the extent to which BOP has evaluated the effectiveness of FPI and other vocational programs in reducing recidivism and the results. GAO examined recidivism studies and data, analyzed performance data, conducted fieldwork at four FPI facilities selected based on security level and type of products produced, met with industry associations, and interviewed agency officials and employed inmates. GAO is making two recommendations: (1) BOP should update its evaluation plan for FPI by setting a new timeline for evaluation and (2) BOP should set a goal to reduce recidivism. DOJ concurred with the recommendations. For more information, contact Gretta L. Goodwin at (202) 512-8777 or email@example.com or William T. Woods at (202) 512-4841 or firstname.lastname@example.org.[Read More…]
- Opioid Use Disorder: Treatment with Injectable and Implantable BuprenorphineBy Sam NewsAugust 4, 2020Of the medications used to treat opioid use disorder (OUD), only buprenorphine is both a controlled substance and available as an injection or implant. Buprenorphine is used to treat patients with OUD because it reduces or eliminates opioid withdrawal symptoms and blunts the euphoria or dangerous side effects of other opioids, such as heroin. When used to treat OUD, buprenorphine, in any form, is subject to additional laws and regulations that are overseen by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), within the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). To ensure patient safety when injectable and implantable buprenorphine is used, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), within HHS has also required drug companies to establish risk evaluation and mitigation strategies to help ensure the benefits of these medications outweigh their risks. Providers and pharmacies must follow a number of specific steps based on federal requirements when providing treatment with injectable and implantable buprenorphine. Providers are responsible for prescribing, storing, and administering injectable and implantable buprenorphine, while pharmacies are responsible for dispensing these medications (see figure). Representatives GAO interviewed from provider groups and pharmacies said they did not find the steps involved in treating patients to be difficult overall. However, they stated that careful and timely coordination with each other and patients is needed at key steps of the process to ensure that the patient receives treatment. Representatives from provider groups and pharmacies reported that the risk of diversion of injectable and implantable buprenorphine is low. For example, all of the provider groups GAO spoke with said that diversion of injectable or implantable buprenorphine is unlikely, and representatives from three of the six provider groups said that the design of these formulations reduces opportunities for diversion due to how they are administered. Process for Treating Opioid Use Disorder with Injectable and Implantable Buprenorphine The use of injectable and implantable buprenorphine to treat OUD is relatively low compared to oral forms of buprenorphine. HHS has reported that about 7,250 prescriptions were issued for injectable and implantable buprenorphine in fiscal year 2019, compared to over 700,000 patients who received buprenorphine prescriptions for oral formulations to treat OUD or pain in that year. In 2018, SAMHSA estimated that about one-quarter of the estimated 2 million people with OUD had received some form of substance use treatment in the prior year. One form of treatment—medication-assisted treatment (MAT)— combines behavioral therapy with the use of certain medications. HHS has identified expanding access to treatment for OUD as an important strategy for reducing opioid morbidity and mortality, which includes increasing the number of injectable and implantable buprenorphine prescriptions. Congress included a provision in the SUPPORT Act for GAO to review access to and the potential for the diversion of controlled substances administered by injection or implantation. This report focuses on injectable and implantable controlled substances that can be used to treat OUD and specifically, describes the process for treating OUD with injectable and implantable buprenorphine and what is known about their use. GAO reviewed laws, regulations, and documentation from DEA, FDA, and SAMHSA governing the process of providing treatment with buprenorphine and interviewed officials from those agencies. GAO also interviewed representatives from stakeholder groups representing MAT providers; drug companies that manufacture injectable or implantable buprenorphine; and pharmacies that dispense these medications. HHS and DOJ reviewed a draft of this report, and GAO incorporated their technical comments, as appropriate. For more information, contact James Cosgrove at (202) 512-7114 or email@example.com.[Read More…]
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- Veterans Justice Outreach Program: Further Actions to Identify and Address Barriers to Participation Would Promote Access to ServicesBy Sam NewsSeptember 14, 2021What GAO Found In response to the Veterans Treatment Court Improvement Act of 2018, Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) data show the agency hired 51 Veterans Justice Outreach (VJO) specialists, though VA completed its hiring and reporting after the statute's deadline. The program relies on nearly 400 VJO specialists—primarily social workers—who work with jails and municipal courts to identify and assess the needs of arrested or incarcerated veterans, and connect them to VA health care services. In addition, VA's reporting to Congress lacked required information, such as the number of veterans who lack access to VJO specialists. Although VA does not collect these data, VJO program officials said that future research will help them estimate this number. VA has identified and taken some steps to address barriers that veterans may face in accessing VJO specialists and receiving services. GAO additionally found that veterans with other-than-honorable discharges—often at greater risk of mental health issues and suicide—may not know they are eligible under a 2020 VA policy that extends mental health care services to certain members of this subgroup. (See figure.) In addition, this policy change and newly available services are not reflected in training for VJO specialists. As a result, veterans may not meet with VJO specialists and miss an opportunity to get help accessing VA's health care services. Barriers Justice-Involved Veterans (JIV) May Face Accessing VJO Specialists VA and others have conducted research on the use of VA services by veterans in the VJO program, and VA officials have used this research to improve the program by educating staff and further directing their research. However, VJO research and improvement efforts are not guided by project plans that define goals and identify needed resources, such as stakeholder expertise, as called for by generally recognized project management practices. VJO officials told GAO that research is a key strategy for improving VJO services and that they intend to develop a plan, but do not have a timeframe for doing so. Until the VJO program develops detailed project plans that also identify needed resources, program officials will not have a road map to improve the use of VA services by veterans in the VJO program. Why GAO Did This Study Veterans who have been arrested and jailed are at an increased risk of homelessness, mental health conditions, and suicide. To address these concerns and prevent re-incarceration, VA created the VJO program, which served over 30,000 veterans in fiscal year 2020. The Veterans Treatment Court Improvement Act of 2018 included a provision for GAO to assess VA's implementation of the act's requirements. This report examines the extent to which VA has (1) implemented the act's hiring and reporting requirements, (2) identified and addressed barriers that veterans face in accessing VJO specialists, and (3) conducted and used research to improve the use of VA services by veterans in the program. GAO reviewed relevant federal laws and VA documentation, including program guidance, policies, plans, and reports; reviewed selected studies on veterans' use of the VJO program; interviewed VA and VJO officials; and analyzed VA data for fiscal years 2016 through 2020 on veterans served by the program.[Read More…]
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