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Friday, December 3rd, 2021

GAO highlights opportunities to improve federal COVID-19 response, recovery efforts

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In accordance with the CARES Act containing a provision for the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to report on ongoing COVID-19 monitoring and oversight efforts, six recommendations have been issued.

The GAO indicated its recent analysis examined key actions the federal government has taken to address the pandemic and evolving lessons learned relevant to the nation’s response to pandemics.

Per the GAO, four relief laws were enacted as of June 2020 in response to COVID-19, including the CARES Act, in March 2020, with the measures having appropriated $2.6 trillion across the government.

The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP); Economic Stabilization and Assistance to Distressed Sectors; unemployment insurance; economic impact payments; Public Health and Social Services Emergency Fund; and Coronavirus Relief Fund accounted for 86 percent of the appropriations, the GAO indicated.

GAO identified several challenges related to the federal response to the crisis, officials said, noting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported incomplete and inconsistent data from state and jurisdictional health departments on the amount of viral testing occurring nationwide, making it more difficult to track and know the number of infections, mitigate their effects, and inform decisions on reopening communities; the nationwide need for critical supplies to respond to COVID-19 quickly exceeded the quantity of supplies contained in the Strategic National Stockpile; PPP borrowers and lenders raised several questions about the program and eligibility criteria, but after efforts to address the concerns, questions and confusion remained; and the Department of Labor currently has no mechanism in place to capture information in real-time about unemployment insurance claimants who may receive wages paid from PPP loan proceeds.

The GAO has offered the following recommendations, including urging Congress to take legislative action to require the Secretary of Transportation to work with relevant agencies and stakeholders, to develop a national aviation preparedness plan to ensure safeguards are in place to limit the spread of communicable disease threats from abroad while at the same time minimizing any unnecessary interference with travel and trade; provide agencies access to the Social Security Administration’s more complete set of death data and require that the Department of the Treasury consistently use it; and as a means of ensuring federal funding is targeted and timely, the GAO has urged Congress to use the agency’s Federal Medical Assistance Percentage formula for any future changes to the Federal Medical Assistance Percentage during the current or any future economic downturn.

Executive Action recommendations issued by the GAO include the Secretary of Labor immediately providing information to state unemployment agencies specifically addressing Paycheck Protection Program loans and the risk of improper payments associated with the loans; the Commissioner of Internal Revenue should consider cost-effective options for notifying ineligible recipients on how to return payments; and the Administrator of the Small Business Administration should develop and implement plans to identify and respond to risks in the Paycheck Protection Program to ensure program integrity, achieve program effectiveness and address potential fraud.

Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ) said the GAO’s report provided a detailed accounting of the Trump Administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

“The report finds routine inconsistencies in the Administration’s testing data, perpetual shortages of critical supplies, and poorly coordinated response efforts that allowed the virus to spread at alarming rates,” Pallone said in response to the report. “The GAO’s findings echo concerns we heard from governors at a hearing earlier this month about how the federal government has hampered state efforts to deal with shortages of critical supplies. It raises questions about allocating supplies from the Strategic National Stockpile and how it will ensure the Stockpile is replenished to continue fighting COVID-19 infections.”