JHVEPhoto / iStock.com

The Government's Top Watchdog Has Added Pandemic Response to Its High-Risk List

Longstanding issues have exacerbated shortcomings during the COVID-19 pandemic, GAO says.

The government’s top watchdog is sounding the alarm on the Health and Human Services Department’s capacity to coordinate and lead response efforts during public health emergencies, saying its longstanding shortcomings inhibit COVID-19-related initiatives and future efforts.

The deficiencies have lingered for more than a decade, the Government Accountability Office said in a new report, limiting the government’s efforts during crises such as the H1N1 flu, Zika virus and Ebola outbreaks and culminating with the current pandemic. HHS’ inability to address its shortfalls compelled GAO to label HHS’ emergency response as a “high risk,” the most severe rating reserved for the most troubled government operations. 

“This designation is in keeping with long-standing efforts to identify federal programs needing transformation, and to help ensure sustained executive branch and congressional attention so the nation is prepared for future emergencies,” GAO said.

Nearly two-thirds of the recommendations GAO has issued since 2007 related to public health emergencies remain unaddressed. The auditors faulted HHS for failing to ensure clear intergovernmental coordination, improve data collection, issue clear communications, improve transparency and recognize the limitations of its partners. Specific areas with room for improvement include the repatriation of citizens during an emergency, biodefense, supply chain management, the interoperability of health care systems and vaccine development. 

HHS has obligated 80% of the $484 billion Congress has provided the department since the outset of the pandemic, but actually spent less than half of that total. GAO criticized the Biden administration for failing to spell out exactly how it plans to spend the remaining funds. 

While the pandemic remains the most acute emergency for the government to address, GAO warned it is likely to face many more crises in the near future.  

“As devastating as the COVID-19 pandemic has been, more frequent extreme weather events, new viruses, and bad actors who threaten to cause intentional harm loom, making the deficiencies GAO has identified particularly concerning,” the auditors said. 

GAO typically releases its High Risk List every two years, at the start of each Congress. The list is reserved for agencies and programs particularly vulnerable to waste, fraud and abuse, or in need of a total overhaul. 

Thursday’s report was the ninth GAO has issued on the federal government’s COVID-19 response. Agencies have implemented just 38% of the 246 recommendations GAO has made, and has fully addressed just 16%. In addition to HHS’ larger coordination role, it took issue with the execution of several pandemic programs. 

The Treasury Department has disbursed more than 80% of the nearly $47 billion it received to provide rental assistance, but GAO said it has done so without much effort to identify or recover overpayments. It has provided grants to state and local governments to reimburse landlords and others, but it has no process for resolving errors and waste. The Office of Management and Budget has yet to issue guidance for auditing the program. At this point, GAO said, addressing the issue may be impossible, but Treasury agreed to develop new processes. 

The Agriculture Department’s Food Nutrition Service has never developed a comprehensive strategy for how to deploy its food assistance programs during a public health emergency, GAO said. It added the nutrition service should improve its assistance in helping state and local governments determine eligibility for a COVID-19 program aimed at ensuring children missing school lunches still receive food. The agency’s existing pandemic plan is outdated, the auditors explained, and the nutrition service has been slow to incorporate lessons learned from the pandemic.  

“Such a strategy could help FNS ensure that individuals and households maintain food security in times of heightened need and that FNS does not miss opportunities to coordinate with vendors across the country,” GAO said. 

A tax benefit aimed at helping businesses with operating losses during the pandemic has also left the Internal Revenue Service ill-prepared to handle an influx of cases. Additional requests for refunds through the program have spiked by 276%, GAO said, and IRS has been unable to process them in line with statutory deadlines. That results in delays for taxpayers and costly interest payments for the government. IRS leadership has frequently warned that understaffing and new pandemic responsibilities have left the agency without enough resources, especially during the current tax filing season.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.