The independent investigative agency that reports to Congress found numerous instances of ineptitude, poor planning, and mismanagement in almost every area of response.
The Government Accountability Office released a comprehensive report Thursday detailing the Trump administration’s widespread failures in handling the COVID-19 crisis that has gripped the U.S. since March.
The independent investigative agency that reports to Congress looked into the nearly $3 trillion in coronavirus relief spending approved by Congress in March and April, and found numerous instances of ineptitude, poor planning, and mismanagement in almost every area of response, from public health to small businesses aid to the stimulus checks sent to American households.
Below are a few of the highlights:
A million dead people got stimulus checks.
After Congress passed the CARES Act in March, the Treasury department and the IRS rushed to disburse $269 billion in coronavirus stimulus payments to 160.4 million U.S. citizens. But the federal government sent nearly $1.4 billion of these payments to 1.1 million dead people.
Part of the discrepancy was related to the fact that the IRS has access to the Social Security Administration’s full set of death records, while the Treasury Department and its Bureau of the Fiscal Service—which issue the payments—do not. The IRS announced that payments made to the deceased must be returned, but has not developed a plan to recoup the payments.
Inadequate stockpile of vital protective and medical equipment.
The GAO interviewed leadership at the Offices of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response and discovered “the Strategic National Stockpile did not have the capacity to provide states with supplies at the scale necessary to respond to a nationwide event such as the COVID-19 pandemic.” Furthermore, the Department of Health and Human Services “did not replenish personal protective equipment to previous levels following the H1N1 pandemic of 2009, because of a lack of funding,” the GAO reported.
In a February briefing, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar told Congress the stockpile had only had 30 million N95 respirator masks, when as many as 300 million could be necessary for healthcare workers if the virus continued to spread.
Viral testing is inconsistent.
The GAO determined that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported incomplete and inconsistent data on the amount of viral testing from state and jurisdictional health departments. This has complicated tracking the number of infections and their effects, and increased the difficulty of making informed decisions on reopening cities and states.
SBA snafus left the Paycheck Protection Program vulnerable to fraud.
Despite the Small Business Administration having processed over $512 billion in guaranteed loans to small businesses as part of the Paycheck Protection Program, “SBA to date has failed to provide information critical to our review, including a detailed description of data on loans made,” the GAO wrote. This has raised concerns about the program’s integrity and potential fraud, CNN reported.
“Because of the number of loans approved, the speed with which they were processed, and the limited safeguards, there is a significant risk that some fraudulent or inflated applications were approved. In addition, the lack of clear guidance has increased the likelihood that borrowers may misuse loan proceeds or be surprised they do not qualify for full loan forgiveness,” the GAO wrote.
States were unprepared to handle the volume of unemployment claims.
Outdated systems and understaffed departments buckled under the double waves of increased unemployment claims and a sudden influx of supplemental cash for coronavirus relief. Some states had technology systems that were decades old, resulting in widespread crashes due to the number of claims, the report said. The Department of Labor had issued some grants for updating systems, but they had not been tested at the level of need.
Several broad lessons emerged from the data for dealing with a national pandemic, and the GAO spelled them out clearly. Consistent communication is a necessity between all levels of government, with healthcare providers and to the public. Collecting and analyzing adequate and reliable data is a must for the decision-making process. And the early establishment of transparency and accountability mechanisms helps ensure federal funds reach the intended people and are used for the intended purposes.
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As the report points out, the Trump administration “continues to lack a national aviation-preparedness plan for communicable disease outbreaks,” and several agencies, including the DOL, the IRS, and the SBA, have important steps they need to take to improve recovery efforts.
Otherwise, “the negative effects of the pandemic on families, communities, and health care systems and on the long-term economic condition of millions of Americans and U.S. businesses are likely to persist into the future.”
The report was released as the GOP struggles with the proposal of passing another stimulus package that includes direct funds to U.S. citizens. According to the Washington Post, President Trump supports the move in the interest of his re-election campaign. Republican lawmakers, however, are wary of the costs.