WASHINGTON, D.C. (January 27, 2022) – With the Omicron variant presenting new challenges across the country, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) today issued its ninth comprehensive report on COVID relief under the CARES Act, making five new recommendations to strengthen the government’s pandemic response in such areas as nutrition assistance, emergency rental assistance, and tax relief for businesses.
GAO is also designating the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) coordination and leadership of public health emergencies as High Risk due to significant, long-standing deficiencies spanning several years.
These deficiencies in HHS’s preparedness and response efforts include (1) establishing clear roles and responsibilities for the wide range of key federal, state, local, tribal, territorial, and nongovernmental partners; (2) collecting and analyzing complete and consistent data to inform decision-making—including any necessary midcourse changes—as well as future preparedness; (3) providing clear and consistent communication to key partners and the public; (4) establishing transparency and accountability to help ensure program integrity and build public trust; and (5) understanding key partners’ capabilities and limitations.
“As the government responds to evolving events related to this multi-year pandemic, GAO continues to review the government’s overall planning for and response to COVID-19,” said Gene L. Dodaro, Comptroller General of the United States and head of the GAO. “The recommendations in our latest report on COVID relief, as well as more than 200 open previous recommendations, underscore how much needs to be done to strengthen our government’s response. In addition, leadership shortcomings at HHS, which date back a number of years, undermine many of its efforts to deal a wide range of public health challenges, including the coronavirus pandemic and extreme weather events. So we are adding that area to our High Risk list.” The list highlights areas at high risk for waste, fraud, abuse, mismanagement or in need of transformation.
The five new recommendations GAO is making are in the areas of nutrition assistance, emergency rental assistance, and tax relief for businesses:
Nutrition Assistance. The Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), within the Department of Agriculture, administers multiple federal nutrition assistance programs, from the Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer (Pandemic EBT) program, which provides food assistance for children attending schools closed due to COVID-19, to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. FNS lacks a comprehensive strategy to guide its nutrition assistance programs during emergencies. Its pandemic plans are outdated, and FNS’ efforts to identify and incorporate lessons learned from COVID-19 into its nutrition programs are incomplete. FNS has also not adequately assisted state and local agencies in obtaining reliable, comprehensive eligibility data for the Pandemic EBT program.
GAO recommends that FNS develop a comprehensive strategy to help its nutrition assistance programs respond to emergencies, one that includes lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic and a mechanism to periodically review and update the strategy. In developing the strategy, FNS should share timely information with states and other stakeholders to help inform their ongoing response to COVID-19. Moreover, it should further assist state and local agencies obtain reliable and comprehensive eligibility data for the Pandemic EBT program in order to ensure eligibility and benefits amounts are determined accurately.
Emergency Rental Assistance. As of November 30, 2021, the Department of the Treasury had disbursed almost $38 billion of the $46.55 billion it was appropriated for Emergency Rental Assistance (ERA) programs, which assist landlords and tenant households with rent payments, utility bills, and other housing-related expenses. Treasury disburses ERA funds to grantees, such as state, local, and tribal governments, which make payments to landlords, renters, and other eligible recipients. Treasury has not yet designed processes, such as post-payment reviews or recovery audits, to identify and recover overpayments made by grantees or verify the eligibility for and accuracy of ERA payments. Without such processes in place, Treasury’s ability to consistently identify and recover overpayments made by grantees may be delayed or impossible. GAO urges Treasury to design and implement processes to help ensure the timely identification and recovery of overpayments made by grantees in the ERA programs. GAO also recommends that the Office of Management and Budget, in consultation with Treasury, issue guidance to help auditors identify deficiencies in grantees’ compliance with requirements of the ERA programs.
Tax Relief for Businesses. To provide liquidity to businesses during the pandemic, the CARES Act and other COVID-19 relief laws included measures to help businesses reduce certain tax obligations, which in some cases resulted in cash refunds. These measures included expanded carrybacks for net operating losses—that is, when a taxpayer’s allowable deductions exceed the gross income for a tax year—and the acceleration of alternative minimum tax (AMT) credit refunds. According to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), the CARES Act changes contributed to a 276 percent rise in filings for carryback refunds from fiscal year 2020 to fiscal year 2021. This includes applications for tentative refunds for net operating loss carrybacks and AMT credit refunds. IRS has been unable to process this backlog consistent with its statutory time frames. The Internal Revenue Code and the CARES Act generally require IRS to issue refunds within 90 days.
IRS data show that the agency started to miss that deadline in September 2020, a trend that continued throughout 2021. Until effective preventative control activities and mitigation plans are put in place, IRS remains at risk of failing to issue tentative refunds for net operating loss carrybacks and AMT credit refunds in a timely way. These delays not only hold up the delivery of refunds to taxpayers, they also increase the interest costs the federal government must pay on such refunds. For fiscal year 2021, these interest payments amounted to approximately $61 million on all carrybacks, of which applications for tentative refunds made up roughly 80 percent. GAO recommends that IRS establish mitigation plans—including indicators, such as a threshold to initiate mitigation activities—to ensure applications for tentative refunds on Forms 1045 and 1139 meet the 90-day processing requirement.
With this latest report, GAO’s oversight of COVID-19 relief has produced 246 recommendations for improvement. Agencies have fully implemented 16 percent (40 recommendations) of these recommendations, and partially implemented another 22 percent (54 recommendations) as of December 31, 2021. GAO also raised four matters for congressional consideration, three of which remain open.
For more information, please contact Chuck Young, Managing Director of Public Affairs, at YoungC1@gao.gov or (202) 512-4800.
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