GAO

Southwest Border: Additional Guidance and Monitoring Needed to Improve Cbp's Handling of Personal Property

What GAO Found U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and its components—U.S. Border Patrol and the Office of Field Operations—have policies and procedures for how its personnel are to handle the personal property of individuals held in custody, and the components have taken action to implement this guidance. For example, GAO observed CBP personnel searching and storing individuals' personal property at short-term holding locations. However, GAO found that Border Patrol locations interpret the guidance differently, including definitions of health hazards and the amount and type of property field locations should collect and store. Property Storage Rooms at Two Border Patrol Facilities, July and September 2023 Note: These photographs illustrate the amount of personal property stored in storage rooms at the two facilities at the time of our visits. The photo on the left is of a facility that did not limit the amount of personal property an individual may store, whereas the photo on the right is of a facility that limits personal property. According to Border Patrol headquarters officials, field locations interpret the guidance differently because it does not define key terms and concepts. Border Patrol headquarters also does not monitor implementation of guidance at the field level. By issuing clarifying guidance on handling personal property and developing and implementing a mechanism to monitor its implementation, Border Patrol would be better positioned to ensure personal property is handled consistent with agency guidance. In addition, CBP policies and procedures state that individuals are to be notified of CBP's process for claiming personal property upon release from custody. GAO found that Border Patrol and the Office of Field Operations field locations do not consistently communicate this information to individuals. By providing written instructions, CBP would be better positioned to communicate procedures to individuals released from custody to better allow them to retrieve their property. Why GAO Did This Study In fiscal year 2023, the Department of Homeland Security's CBP encountered nearly 2.5 million individuals at the southwest border. CBP holds individuals in short-term custody in holding facilities located along the border. When individuals enter short-term custody, CBP personnel must search, collect, store, and transfer or return their personal property. Property deemed to be contraband or hazardous is to be discarded. Individuals and representatives from nongovernmental organizations have raised concerns about CBP personnel not returning or improperly discarding personal property of individuals in custody along the southwest border. GAO was asked to review CBP's policies and procedures regarding the handling of personal property. Among other things, this report assesses the extent to which CBP has developed and implemented policies and procedures for handling personal property. GAO analyzed policies and procedures for handling personal property. GAO also interviewed officials and conducted site visits to 16 CBP facilities in Arizona, California, and Texas.

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Military Justice: Increased Oversight, Data Collection, and Analysis Could Aid Assessment of Racial Disparities

What GAO Found The Departments of the Army, Navy and Air Force varied in the extent to which they included 18 statutorily required elements in their reports on racial and ethnic disparities in their military justice and discipline processes and personnel policies. These elements related to items such as investigations, court-martial panel selection, and sentencing, as well as data on accession, retention, and promotion rates. Each military department at least partially included 14 of the 18 elements but did not include others due to data limitations or because they were deemed less relevant in the military context according to officials (see figure). Inclusion of Elements in Military Department Racial Disparity Reports as Required by the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2022 Several issues limited the usefulness of the military departments' reports—and may limit the usefulness of future reports—in assessing racial and ethnic disparities in the military justice system. Specifically: The departments do not centrally collect and maintain data for some segments of the military justice process such as commander-directed investigations, which are subject to commander discretion and could result in serious disciplinary action. Without a standardized process to collect and maintain such data, the Department of Defense (DOD) will lack visibility over areas that may contribute to disparities. The departments differ in how they capture, analyze, and present data on racial and ethnic disparities, which precludes a comparison of results. Without DOD-level oversight to coordinate these varying efforts, the department may lack the visibility needed to achieve the cultural change required to address such complex issues. In reviewing selected studies on civilian criminal justice systems, GAO identified assessments of disparities in jury selection and sentencing that are not currently included in the military's reports on racial disparities in the military justice system. By comprehensively assessing the military justice and discipline process to identify all areas where racial and ethnic disparities may exist, DOD could maximize its ability to identify and address the root causes of disparities and reenforce the department's commitment to a fair and equitable justice system. Why GAO Did This Study The Military Justice Review Group reported in 2015 that the Uniform Code of Military Justice embodies a single overarching principle: military law can foster a highly disciplined force if it is fair and just. The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2022 includes a provision for GAO to compare the military departments' reports to Congress on racial and ethnic disparity to reports assessing racial and ethnic disparity in civilian criminal justice systems in the U.S. This report assesses the extent to which the military departments' reports (1) include required elements as defined in the statute; (2) enable a DOD-wide assessment of racial and ethnic disparities in the military justice system; and (3) are comparable to studies assessing racial and ethnic disparity in the U.S. civilian criminal justice system. GAO assessed the military departments' reports against the required elements; reviewed 27 selected studies published since 2018 on disparities in civilian justice systems; reviewed DOD and military department guidance and reports; and interviewed cognizant military department officials.

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Veterans Affairs: Actions Needed to Improve Access to Care in the U.S. Territories and Freely Associated States

What GAO Found In addition to serving veterans in the 50 U.S. states and District of Columbia, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is responsible for providing health care and other benefits to veterans in the three foreign countries in the Pacific collectively known as the freely associated states (FAS) and in the five U.S territories. U.S. Territories and Freely Associated States and Their Distances from Washington, D.C. VA uses a model to estimate the size of the veteran population to inform resource allocation and outreach needs. However, VA lacks assurance that the model's estimates are accurate for territory and FAS veterans—for example, one major data source for the model does not include data on most of these locations. Further, local stakeholders from these areas consistently stated that VA's estimates were low. Assessing the model's data sources and availability of other data sets, and making changes as appropriate, could help VA ensure the accuracy of its data for the territories and FAS. Additionally, VA efforts have not sufficiently addressed veterans' access to care challenges in the territories and FAS. For example, due to VA's eligibility criteria for its travel benefits program, as of March 2024, FAS veterans and a large portion of territory veterans do not qualify for VA travel benefits, though they generally need to travel long distances to access VA care. Regarding FAS veterans, legislation enacted in March 2024 explicitly authorized VA subject to certain agreements to reimburse them for travel related to eligible health care services, but VA has not yet implemented this legislation. Additionally, the enabling law that authorized VA to reimburse certain veterans' travel also authorized VA to make payments to any person not explicitly covered in the law, pursuant to regulations. VA may be able to improve access to care for veterans living in the territories by assessing whether it is feasible and advisable to expand eligibility for certain veterans in these areas, as well as by amending its regulations as appropriate. Why GAO Did This Study Citizens from the U.S. territories and FAS generally enlist in the military at higher per capita rates than some U.S. states. As veterans, they are eligible for certain VA benefits. However, GAO has previously found that veterans living in the remote Pacific U.S. territories and abroad can face unique and sometimes substantial challenges accessing their VA benefits. The Honoring our PACT Act of 2022 includes a provision for GAO to review veterans' access to their benefits in the U.S. territories and FAS. This report examines, among other objectives, how VA estimates the population of veterans in the U.S. territories and FAS and VA efforts to help address challenges these veterans face accessing VA health care services. GAO conducted site visits to all five territories and Hawaii, reviewed documentation, and interviewed officials from VA and DOD program offices as well as from local and regional offices of each of these agencies. GAO analyzed data such as veteran demographics and health care service utilization. GAO also interviewed non-federal stakeholders, such as FAS embassy staff.

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Military Health Care: DOD and VA Could Benefit from More Information on Staff Use of Military Toxic Exposure Records

What GAO Found The Individual Longitudinal Exposure Record (ILER) web application links service members' and veterans' military toxic exposure and health information from Department of Defense (DOD) and Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) databases. DOD manages data on ILER. It shows most ILER account holders are Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) staff processing veterans' disability claims. As of November 2023, VBA staff held about 83 percent of the 17,321 ILER accounts opened across DOD and VA. The largest increases in VBA staff with ILER accounts occurred after the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act of 2022 was enacted in August 2022. In response to the act, VBA requires claims benefits staff to use ILER in processing veterans' disability claims. Individual Longitudinal Exposure Record Accounts Opened, by Agency, August 2022 through November 2023 Selected ILER users GAO interviewed—such as DOD and VA health care clinicians and VBA staff—described efficiencies and challenges with using ILER. For example, users appreciate that ILER presents exposure and deployment information in one place, eliminating the need to review records from multiple sources. Users also identified some challenges, including difficulties in finding relevant information. DOD and VA have taken steps to address challenges GAO identified, such as implementing ways to streamline and filter ILER records. GAO found that DOD and VA have tracked the use of ILER to varying degrees. For example, through the joint Deployment Health Work Group, the agencies previously tracked use as part of a goal to increase overall ILER use. However, as of fiscal year 2024, the work group is not monitoring ILER use across DOD and VA by staff type or purpose. By monitoring such information through goals and performance measures, DOD and VA would know how ILER is being used for clinical care, processing claims, and research. This, in turn, would better position the agencies to determine if actions—such as additional outreach to staff—are needed to increase awareness about ILER and ensure it is fully used for all of its intended purposes. Why GAO Did This Study Military service members and veterans may experience adverse health outcomes associated with toxic exposures experienced during military service. For example, service members have reported health concerns from smoke and harmful emissions produced by open-air burn pits. In 2019, DOD and VA launched ILER as a tool to compile information on individuals' service-related toxic exposures. Staff can use ILER to provide health care, process disability claims, and conduct research. Congress included a provision in statute for GAO to review ILER. This report, among other issues, (1) describes what available DOD data show about ILER's use among DOD and VA staff, (2) describes benefits and challenges selected DOD and VA staff have encountered while using ILER, and (3) examines DOD and VA efforts to monitor the extent of ILER use among staff. GAO analyzed data on ILER use among staff as of November 2023; interviewed officials overseeing ILER; reviewed related documents; and interviewed DOD and VA officials at 12 facilities selected for variation in geographic location and number of ILER accounts.

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Emergency Rental Assistance: Treasury Should Improve Data Completeness and Public Reporting

What GAO Found The Department of the Treasury administers the Emergency Rental Assistance (ERA) program, which provides about $47 billion to tribal, state, territorial, and certain local governments and the District of Columbia (grantees). Congress appropriated ERA funding twice, and Treasury considers these appropriations as separate programs (ERA1 and ERA2). Grantees that submitted data to Treasury as of June 30, 2023, reported expending about 87 percent of total ERA funds. Grantees' Total Emergency Rental Assistance (ERA1 and ERA2) Expenditures Publicly Reported, by Program Note: For more details, see fig. 2 in GAO-24-107084. Consistent with its prior work on ERA, GAO found Treasury had not collected complete ERA2 data or assessed the risk of improper payments. Treasury was not collecting complete data on the program's expenditures, demographics, and payments to households, as of June 30, 2023. For example, 3 percent of ERA2 grantees, whose funds totaled $581 million, did not submit required data for the second quarter of 2023. Also, Treasury said 10 percent of grantees whose funds totaled $787 million did not report data on payments made to individual households as of June 30, 2023. According to Treasury, all but five grantees reported household payment data for the fourth quarter of 2023. To help improve its data collection, Treasury has shifted from quarterly to cumulative reporting (which allows grantees to correct data reported in prior quarters), but significant data limitations remain. Treasury also has not assessed the program's risk of improper payments to households, which GAO identified as a significant risk. As GAO reported in 2022, improving ERA data collection and assessing improper payment risks would better position Treasury to oversee the ERA program and address program risks. ERA2 publicly available quarterly reports contain some notes on general limitations to the reported data, but do not clearly disclose more specific limitations. Specifically, the reports do not disclose that the data may underreport ERA2 funds and payments to households because not all grantees reported complete information. The reports also do not disclose which or how many local jurisdictions have declined ERA2 funds and transferred those funds to their state or another locality. In addition, the reports do not explain that the demographic information provided on households receiving assistance represents only those grantees that provided such information, not all grantees. These specific omissions may lead a user of the reports to draw inaccurate conclusions about the ERA2 program. Clear disclosure on the limitations of the ERA2 data would facilitate interpretation of the data and give Congress and the public a better understanding of what is known about the program and its outcomes. Why GAO Did This Study The ERA program helps low-income households affected by the COVID-19 pandemic pay rent, utilities, and other housing-related costs. ERA1 funds have expired, but grantees are still expending ERA2 funds, which do not expire until September 2025. The CARES Act includes a provision for GAO to monitor federal efforts to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. This report continues GAO's reporting on ERA and examines (1) the status of Treasury's efforts to ensure ERA has complete data and to address potential improper payments, and (2) Treasury's disclosure of the limitations of ERA2 data. GAO analyzed ERA2 quarterly data on expenditures and household demographics and payments as of June 30, 2023, the most recent available at the time of analysis. GAO also compared Treasury's most recent publicly available reports (second quarter of 2023) against agency guidance and interviewed Treasury officials.

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Federal Workforce: Leading Practices Related to Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility

What GAO Found This report presents GAO's leading practices for diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) management and includes key considerations for implementing them (see table below). These practices can provide valuable insight and guidance for agencies to enhance their DEIA programs but are not meant to be all encompassing and are distinct from equal opportunity requirements under the law. GAO's leading DEIA practices are interrelated, reinforce each other, and are not sequenced in any order. Subject matter specialists and the literature generally agree that a combination of the nine identified practices should be considered when developing and implementing DEIA programs. GAO was told by all the subject matter specialists that top leadership commitment to DEIA sends a clear message about the seriousness and business relevance of DEIA. GAO has often emphasized that top leadership commitment is perhaps the single most important element in successful management improvement initiatives. Accountability provides a means for ensuring that managers at all levels are made responsible for DEIA in their organizations and are evaluated on their efforts to support DEIA initiatives. DEIA training includes organizational efforts to inform and educate management and staff about DEIA. Leading Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility (DEIA) Practices and Selected Key Considerations Why GAO Did This Study As the nation's largest employer, the federal government strives to be a model for DEIA, and to cultivate a workforce that draws from all segments of society. To this end, federal agencies are expected to establish and maintain a productive workforce that provides opportunities for all employees to excel. Such organizations typically foster a work environment in which people are enabled and motivated to aid mission accomplishment. GAO was asked to identify leading practices and tools to advance DEIA. This report updates our 2005 leading diversity management practices and highlights key considerations that can help agencies advance DEIA in their workforces. Since 2005, GAO has continued to report on federal efforts to increase diversity in the workforce, ensure equity, enhance inclusive environments, and improve reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities. GAO reviewed scholarly and peer-reviewed literature related to diversity management. GAO randomly selected 21 subject matter specialists that included, amongst others, individuals from federal, state, and local governments, for semi-structured interviews. For more information, contact Dawn G. Locke at (202) 512-6806 or locked@gao.gov.

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Long-Term Care: Information on the Ombudsman Program

What GAO Found The Long-Term Care (LTC) Ombudsman Program is an independent, consumer protection service focused on protecting the health, safety, welfare, and rights of LTC residents. The program has a unique role in that it represents the interests of residents rather than those of the state and has a public policy advocacy function. The Administration for Community Living (ACL) within the Department of Health and Human Services administers the program. All 50 states, as well as the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and Guam, have an Office of the State LTC Ombudsman, headed by a full-time state LTC ombudsman. State LTC ombudsman programs are responsible for serving individuals of any age who reside in LTC facilities. These LTC facilities may include nursing homes and certain residential care communities, such as assisted living facilities and adult foster homes. In fiscal year 2022, state LTC ombudsman programs were responsible for serving more than 3 million residents across approximately 76,000 LTC facilities, according to data from ACL. In fiscal year 2022, total expenditures for the state LTC ombudsman programs were about $140 million with about 49 percent coming from federal sources. State LTC ombudsman programs provide several services including conducting regular facility visits; identifying, investigating, and resolving complaints; providing information and support to residents, and others; and conducting systems advocacy. These programs do not provide direct care to residents. Most programs used a combination of paid staff and volunteers to provide such services in fiscal year 2022—the most current year available—with volunteers donating approximately 1 hour per week. Officials we interviewed from five selected state LTC ombudsman programs, ACL, and stakeholders described various challenges that make it difficult to provide all the services they are responsible for providing. Examples of commonly reported challenges include the following. Ombudsmen work and resident needs have become increasingly complex which can require more or different types of resources. For example, officials from two states told us ombudsmen are increasingly serving residents with complex needs related to mental health, substance misuse, or cognitive impairment. Increase in the number of assisted living facilities and the resulting workload for ombudsmen. Resource limitations that have made it challenging to meet workload demands or hire necessary staff, including funding and staffing limitations. Officials from the five selected states also reported that the COVID-19 pandemic introduced challenges for their programs related to staffing, funding, or quality of care. Officials from four of these states also reported that the pandemic provided opportunities to enhance their programs, such as increased use of virtual tools to connect with residents and enhance communication. At the national level, ACL data showed that the COVID-19 pandemic affected the workload of and staffing for state LTC ombudsman programs. The workload of state LTC ombudsman programs generally declined during the first year of the pandemic and partially rebounded to pre-pandemic levels in fiscal year 2022. The volume of paid staff declined between fiscal years 2019 and 2020 but quickly rebounded to about pre-pandemic levels in fiscal year 2021. However, the number of volunteers has consistently declined since fiscal year 2019. Why GAO Did This Study The residents of LTC settings are often vulnerable individuals in need of high-quality care from the nursing home, assisted living, or other care setting where they live. According to ACL, the number of individuals in LTC facilities is expected to increase significantly given the growth in the aging population. We were asked to review the LTC Ombudsman Program. This report describes how workload and staffing of state LTC ombudsman programs have changed in recent years and reported challenges these programs face in providing services. To obtain information on the LTC Ombudsman Program, including information on the funding, organization, and states' ability to provide the necessary services, we reviewed information from federal and state sources. We collected and reviewed data from ACL's National Ombudsman Reporting System—a system that compiles national statistics reported by states about ombudsman activities—for fiscal years 2019 through 2022, the most recent 4-year period available. We also interviewed officials from ACL, five state LTC ombudsman programs (Arkansas, Connecticut, Montana, Ohio, and Oregon), and four national stakeholder organizations, such as the National Association of State Long-Term Care Ombudsmen Programs. For more information, contact John E. Dicken at (202) 512-7114 or DickenJ@gao.gov.

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Black Lung Benefits Program: Lack of Resolution on Coal Operator Self-Insurance Increases Financial Risk to Trust Fund

What GAO Found The Department of Labor (DOL) took initial steps to implement GAO's 2020 recommendations to improve its oversight of self-insured coal mine operators, but its reform effort was hindered by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to DOL officials. Additionally, the incoming administration undertook a review of DOL's coal operator self-insurance program, according to DOL officials. Black lung benefits are generally paid by liable coal mine operators, and federal law generally requires coal mine operators to secure their black lung benefit liability. Operators are allowed to self-insure if they meet certain DOL conditions. The federal government's Black Lung Disability Trust Fund (Trust Fund) pays benefits when no responsible mine operator can be identified, or the liable mine operator does not pay. This can happen, for example, when an operator goes bankrupt. As GAO reported in 2020, the bankruptcies of some self-insured operators that occurred from 2014 through 2016 led to the transfer of $865 million in estimated benefit responsibility to the Trust Fund, according to DOL. This occurs when the amount of collateral DOL requires from a self-insured coal operator does not fully cover the operator's benefit responsibility should the operator become insolvent. Since 2016, several other self-insured operators have also filed for bankruptcy, according to DOL. In December 2020, DOL issued a preliminary bulletin for coal operator self-insurance that described significant changes and included actions that would have addressed GAO's recommendations. For instance, DOL set a goal to resolve coal operator appeals within 90 days after receiving supporting documents or meeting with the operator to discuss their concerns. However, in February 2021, DOL rescinded the preliminary bulletin while the incoming administration reviewed DOL's coal mine operator self-insurance program, according to DOL officials. Officials said that this review was completed in November 2021. In January 2023, DOL published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in the Federal Register that proposed changes to its process for coal mine operators to self-insure. For example, the proposed rule would require that all self-insured operators obtain collateral equal to 120 percent of their estimated black lung benefit liabilities. Additionally, the proposed rule would make changes to the coal mine operator self-insurance application, renewal, and appeals process. For instance, the proposed rule would require DOL to notify the self-insurance applicant of the date its authorization is effective, the date its authorization will expire, and the date the applicant must apply to renew its authorization if it intends to continue self-insuring. The proposed rule would also require that operators that wish to appeal a DOL determination must do so within 30 days of receiving that determination and to provide any supporting documentation within that period. In May 2024, DOL submitted its final draft rule on coal operator self-insurance to the Office of Management and Budget for review. Why GAO Did This Study The Trust Fund, which pays benefits to coal miners disabled due to black lung, faces financial challenges. It has borrowed from the U.S. Treasury's general fund almost every year since 1979 to make needed expenditures. In February 2020, GAO found that DOL's limited oversight of coal mine operator insurance exposed the Trust Fund to additional financial risk. This testimony is based on reports GAO issued in 2020 and 2018. GAO found in 2020 that in overseeing coal operator self-insurance DOL did not (1) estimate future benefit liability when setting the amount of collateral required to self-insure, (2) regularly review operators to assess whether the required amount of collateral should change, or (3) always take action to protect the Trust Fund by revoking an operator's ability to self-insure as appropriate. GAO testified on these findings and its related priority recommendations before the Subcommittee on Workforce Protections, Committee on Education and Workforce, House of Representatives, in December 2021. Since that time, GAO has contacted DOL periodically to obtain updates on actions taken to implement GAO's recommendations. In February 2023, GAO also contacted DOL about the October 2022 coal tax rate increase and how it may affect Trust Fund finances.

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401(k) Retirement Plan Tax Notices: Federal Actions Can Help Participants Understand Their Distribution Options

What GAO Found In the United States, 401(k) participants can face challenges when making decisions about their retirement savings accounts. Federal data show that more than 92 million Americans participate in and have saved more than $7 trillion in 401(k) plans. After 401(k) participants separate from their employer and request a distribution from their plan, they are provided a 402(f) Notice, a document that communicates information about the tax consequences of their distribution options for their plan savings. In January 2024, GAO reported that based on its nationally representative survey, 401(k) participants encountered challenges understanding their distribution options as they moved from one job to another. According to GAO's survey, about 80 percent of eligible 401(k) participants were not aware of all four of their distribution options. Additionally, GAO found that 401(k) participants do not fully understand the associated tax consequences of their distribution options, even though plans are required to outline them in the 402(f) Notice before participants receive a distribution. According to GAO's survey, about 40 percent of all eligible 401(k) participants did not understand the tax consequences of their distribution options. GAO's survey also showed that not all 401(k) participants receive information from their old plan when they are making a decision about their retirement savings. Of the eligible participants who received "unsolicited written information" (used as a proxy for the 402(f) Notice) from their old plan after leaving their jobs, about one-third received it before they made a decision about their 401(k) savings, but about 15 percent received it after they made a decision. The remaining participants either received the notice at the time they made a decision or did not know when they received the notice. As a result, not all eligible participants received information from the notice in time to inform their decisions about their retirement savings, according to GAO's survey. Federal agencies can take steps to facilitate better understanding by participants of their distribution options and corresponding tax consequences, which can also assist spouses when they are informed of their spousal rights. GAO made recommendations in January 2024 to the Department of the Treasury (Treasury) and the Department of Labor (DOL) to improve the information provided to 401(k) participants, including the 402(f) Notice. GAO recommended that Treasury take action to clarify information in the notice. For example, this could include amending the 402(f) Notice requirements and the Model 402(f) Notice (a document from the Internal Revenue Service containing model language which plans can adopt for their 402(f) Notices) or providing clarifying information to the notice. Since surviving spouses of 401(k) participants and former spouses under certain circumstances also receive the 402(f) Notice, improvements made by Treasury to the content of the 402(f) Notice would likely benefit them as well. DOL can also take action to ensure plan participants receive easily-understandable information about all four distribution options and the associated tax consequences at the time they leave their job. GAO recommended in January 2024 that DOL take steps that would help plans develop clear and concise communications to inform participants. Why GAO Did This Study The SECURE 2.0 Act of 2022 includes a provision for GAO to analyze the 402(f) Notices provided by retirement plan administrators to plan participants. This report examined (1) the effectiveness of 402(f) Notices, and (2) federal actions that could facilitate better understanding by recipients of their different distribution options and corresponding tax consequences, including spousal rights. To address these objectives, GAO relied on work conducted for its January 2024 report (GAO-24-103577). For that report, GAO interviewed officials from DOL, Treasury, and the Internal Revenue Service; reviewed agency documentation, including available guidance and federal regulations, related to the rollover process. GAO also conducted a nationally representative survey of 401(k) participants who, within the last 3 years, completed a rollover of their savings to another 401(k) plan or who were eligible but did not complete a plan-to-plan rollover. For more information, contact Tranchau (Kris) Nguyen at (202) 512-7215 or nguyentt@gao.gov.

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Contract Financing: Factors That Influence the Use of Financing Methods and DOD's Progress on Proposed Actions

What GAO Found The Department of Defense (DOD) has long recognized that weapon systems—such as aircraft, missiles, and satellites—are capital intensive and take a long time to produce. One way DOD helps contractors manage these expenses is through contract financing. One form of financing is progress payments, which are paid to contractors as a percentage of costs incurred by the contractor. Another form is performance-based payments, which are made to contractors upon completion of milestones, such as the delivery of a part. In the last decade, DOD provided more progress payments than performance-based payments to contractors. In fiscal year 2023, DOD provided approximately $28 billion in progress payments and $22 billion in performance-based payments. Contracting officers stated that they consider several factors when deciding between progress or performance-based payments, as shown below. Factors Department of Defense (DOD) Contracting Officers Consider When Deciding on the Use of Progress or Performance-Based Payments Based on its April 2023 Contract Finance study, DOD proposed 16 actions it could take to help expand the defense industrial base. As of January 2024, DOD had taken steps toward implementing the majority of the proposed actions. DOD estimates that most of these actions will take 1 to 3 years to complete because they are proposed to be regulatory changes. Several of these proposed actions are intended to help subcontractors and small businesses, and include: Improving the ability of subcontractors to contact the contracting officer when they do not receive payments from prime contractors, and Modifying various regulations, as needed, to improve timely payments to subcontractors, including small businesses. One near-term proposed action is the use of a model to help educate contracting officers on the importance of cash-flow to contractors. The goal of the model is to help contracting officers negotiate a better deal for the government compared to a contractor's proposal. DOD plans to introduce the new cash-flow model sometime in 2024. Why GAO Did This Study In fiscal years 2022 and 2023, DOD provided over $100 billion in contract financing to contractors to acquire weapon systems and satellites, among other products. In April 2023, DOD completed a study on the effect of its contract financing and profit policies on the defense industry. This study was in response to a June 2019 GAO report, which noted that DOD had last assessed its contract financing policies in 1985. The 2023 study resulted in several proposed actions for DOD. A Joint Explanatory Statement included a provision for GAO to review the results of DOD's Contract Finance Study. This report describes (1) how contracting officers decide to use progress or performance-based payments and the extent to which DOD used these payments from fiscal years 2013 to 2023; and (2) the extent to which DOD implemented the proposed actions of its study. GAO reviewed the Federal Acquisition Regulation, the Defense Federal Acquisition Regulation Supplement, and DOD guidance to understand when and how progress and performance-based payments can be used. GAO also reviewed fiscal years 2013 to 2023 data on DOD's use of these payments and DOD's April 2023 Contract Finance report; and interviewed DOD contract policy officials and contracting officers from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Defense Logistics Agency. GAO selected contracting officers based on the type of contract financing used in high value contracts. GAO also interviewed industry representatives to obtain their views on the DOD finance report. For more information, contact Mona Sehgal at (202) 512-4841 or SehgalM@gao.gov.

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Virus Field Research: Policy Options to Help Reduce Risks and Enhance Benefits

What GAO Found Virus field research shows benefits in responding to outbreaks and some predictive ability. However, identifying specific preventative benefits of such research is challenging in part because determining the impact of the research on prevention outcomes is difficult to establish with certainty. Experts told us that there are multiple examples of prevention measures that have been taken in an effort to stop an outbreak from occurring, in part because of knowledge gained from virus field research. Virus field researchers face a variety of environmental, occupational, and infectious risks while conducting virus field research. In addition, virus field sample collection is subject to varying levels of regulation. As a result, virus federal field research practices vary, with agencies using their own guidelines for exposure and infection reporting. Alternative approaches can help reduce the risks of virus field research activities, but virus field sample collections are a necessary source of data for technologies such as disease modeling which can help predict potential transmission and outbreaks. There are also technologies and methods that can be used to reduce exposure risks present during these sample collections and contribute to the understanding of diseases and outbreaks. These technologies include satellite sensing and mapping, field drone technology, field inactivation of samples, and field sequencing. GAO identified three policy options that may help address these challenges. These policy options are not mutually exclusive and represent possible actions that policymakers—who may include Congress, federal agencies, state and local governments, academic and research institutions, industry, and international organizations—could consider taking.   Policy Option Opportunities Considerations Policymakers could require researchers to include in federal research proposals a risk assessment that identifies the potential risks and benefits of the research as well as the personnel training to mitigate such risks. This policy option could help address the challenge of how to determine the effectiveness of virus field research in preventing pandemics. Risk assessments could help focus research on high-risk human-animal interfaces where spillover into the population is most likely to occur, to maximize the potential benefit of virus field research. Could help identify opportunities to use other risk reduction approaches, including new technologies. Standardized approaches for evaluating risks may need to be developed so that assessments are sufficiently consistent between federal agencies, international organizations, and researchers to allow for reliable and usable assessments. Potential benefits may not be directly connected to research (e.g., scientific capacity building) or may not become apparent for a long time. Policymakers could establish a federal working group to develop standardized tracking and reporting guidelines for potential exposures and infections that occur during virus field work. This policy option could help address the challenge of varying levels of regulation and reporting requirements between agencies and intramural and extramural research. Consistent reporting guidelines could help agencies more effectively track potential exposures or infections from virus field research, which may help agencies evaluate risks to researchers and the public. Could allow for better accountability of federal funding and could support further evidence-based policymaking. Such efforts may involve extensive collaboration, such as between federal agencies or with international stakeholders such as the World Health Organization, to ensure that uniform guidelines are adopted for international field work. It may be difficult to clearly identify the types of exposures and infections that should be reported. Funding recipients and agencies may be hesitant to voluntarily report potential exposures and infections if they thought reports could affect future funding. Agencies and experts may believe that current biosafety and reporting practices are sufficient, so may consider new voluntary guidelines as an additional burden with limited value. It can be difficult to establish a clear linkage between specific field work and an exposure or infection, so it may be difficult to create guidelines that ensure accurate reporting. Policymakers could fund research and development of technologies that may reduce risks of virus field research. This policy option could help address the challenge that current technologies cannot replace virus field research sample collection by humans. Technologies that decrease sample handling and transportation by researchers could reduce the risk of zoonotic spillover. If the replacement technologies require researchers to spend more time in the field, they may increase the risk of exposure to other diseases or hazards. It may be challenging to determine how much a given technology, among other investments, reduces risk, which may make it difficult to justify sustained investment. Technologies may force tradeoffs between reduced risks of exposure or infection and less data overall, or lower fidelity data. Source: GAO. | GAO-24-106759 Why GAO Did This Study Researchers estimate that 75 percent of emerging infectious diseases come from nonhuman animals. Virus field research—the collection of virus samples from wildlife and the environment and subsequent virus characterization—allows scientists to monitor viral populations, understand their biology, and obtain information that may help predict, prevent, and respond to future viral outbreaks. Congressional requesters asked GAO to identify the benefits and risks of virus field research and whether alternative technologies may reduce the need for, or replace, field work. This report describes (1) whether field-based collection of virus samples from wildlife and the environment improves our ability to predict, prevent, or respond to pandemics; (2) risks associated with field-based virus collection, transport, and laboratory characterization to identify viruses with pandemic potential; and (3) technologies, other than field-based researchers' collection of virus samples, that may help predict future outbreaks and pandemics. GAO conducted a literature review, convened a multiday 12-person subject matter expert meeting, analyzed documents from six agencies engaged in virus field research, and interviewed agency officials and others knowledgeable in the field. GAO identified three policy options that may help enhance the benefits and decrease the risks of virus field research. USAID provided a written response in which they neither agreed nor disagreed with our findings. For more information, contact Karen L. Howard at (202) 512-6888 or HowardK@gao.gov.

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Rental Housing: Information on Institutional Investment in Single-Family Homes

What GAO Found Large “institutional” investors emerged in the wake of the 2007–2009 financial crisis, bulk-purchasing foreclosed homes at auction and converting them into rental housing. Aided by access to capital through various sources, institutional investors had a funding advantage over smaller investors at a time when mortgage lenders were generally reducing lending. Additionally, technological advancements allowed companies to acquire and manage large portfolios of single-family homes more easily. Institutional investors initially relied on bulk purchases but then shifted to making smaller-scale purchases, merging with other investors, or building homes for rent. These activities have contributed to their growth over time. Studies GAO reviewed found that no investor owned 1,000 or more single-family rental homes as of late 2011. However, by 2015, institutional investors collectively owned an estimated 170,000-300,000 homes. As of June 2022, institutional investors of varying sizes made up a large portion of the single-family rental market in many cities, particularly in Sunbelt states. Estimated Share of the Single-Family Rental Market Held by Investors with over 1,000 Homes in Selected Areas, as of 2022 Note: For more details, see fig.6 in GAO-24-106643. Studies GAO reviewed found that institutional investors may have contributed to increasing home prices and rents and helped stabilize neighborhoods following the financial crisis. However, information on these investors' effects on homeownership opportunities and tenants (e.g., eviction rates) was unclear because data are limited and there is no consistent definition of institutional investor. Why GAO Did This Study Millions of homeowners defaulted on their mortgages during the 2007–2009 financial crisis. Institutional investors (i.e., companies that own a large number of single-family rental homes) grew large portfolios of single-family homes and converted them to rental properties to help meet growing demand for rental housing. However, more recently, low housing supply and elevated housing prices and rents have raised questions about the effect of institutional investors on the housing market and renters. The Joint Explanatory Statement accompanying the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2023, includes a provision for GAO to report on the prevalence and types of institutional investors and their effect on single-family rental housing. This report provides information on (1) institutional investors in single-family rental housing and (2) reported effects of institutional investment on housing markets and residents. GAO reviewed 74 studies that examined institutional investment in single-family housing, including scholarly articles and research reports from governmental and nongovernmental organizations. GAO also interviewed agency officials and representatives of consumer advocacy, industry, and research organizations selected for their knowledge in this area. For more information, contact Jill Naamane at (202) 512-8678 or naamanej@gao.gov.

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Tax Enforcement: IRS Audit Selection Processes for Returns Claiming Refundable Credits Could Better Address Equity

What GAO Found The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the Department of the Treasury have committed to tax administration equity, including equity in how IRS conducts audits, in multiple policies and various media. IRS also has begun to examine potential systemic biases in audit enforcement across several demographic characteristics, including age, gender, geography, race, and ethnicity. IRS's Wage & Investment Division (W&I) audits returns claiming refundable tax credits, including the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Premium Tax Credit. W&I uses a mix of manual and automatic processes to determine the number and types of audits it will conduct and relies on four objectives to develop its audit workplan. One of these objectives is the no-change rate—the percentage of returns that will yield no additional revenue after audit. IRS seeks to achieve a low no-change rate because that indicates it is auditing noncompliant taxpayers. However, the calculation of the no-change rate includes default audits—audits closed as a “change” because taxpayers did not respond or provided insufficient responses to IRS's notices. IRS officials said their recent research found that Black taxpayers are more likely not to respond to IRS correspondence than taxpayers of other races. Default audits also may be more common among low-income and EITC taxpayers, because of challenges that make communicating successfully with IRS more difficult, such as being transitory or not having bank accounts. W&I uses past results to inform current audit planning, which could lead to W&I disproportionately selecting the types of returns that have historically resulted in filers' nonresponse rather than in confirmed noncompliance. The primary system IRS uses to select specific returns for audit is the Dependent Database (DDB) program, an automated system that flags returns for potential risk of noncompliance. While IRS regularly reviews the program, the review process does not comprehensively consider data inputs and assumptions that could inform IRS about the demographic equity of the audit selection process, creating the potential for unintended bias in audit selection. For example, GAO found that some risk scores contained in the DDB program vary by sex, which could skew selection, and have not been updated since 2001. The primary measure for assessing the performance of the DDB system is the no-change rate. IRS officials said they are piloting a new scoring model to better detect noncompliance in tax return filings, which would be used for audit selection. IRS used the amount of revenue gained through conducting the audits as a performance measure for the pilot, an indicator of the extent of noncompliance rather than just its presence. The agency may be missing opportunities to improve the likelihood that IRS is properly identifying returns at highest risk of noncompliance if it does not consider additional performance measures in reviewing its automated audit selection process. Why GAO Did This Study Policymakers and the public expect IRS to administer the tax code fairly. Even though IRS does not collect information on the race and ethnicity of taxpayers, some audit selection criteria and methods could have different implications for taxpayers depending on their race or ethnicity. According to one academic study, audits of EITC returns accounted for 78 percent of the overall estimated racial disparity in audit rates. GAO was asked to examine IRS's safeguards for ensuring audits do not target filers based on demographic characteristics. This report focuses on audits that address refundable credits, including EITC, and describes IRS policies to address equity in audits; describes relevant audit planning and selection processes; and assesses how IRS considers equity both in developing its audit workplans and in its automated audit selection processes. GAO reviewed relevant academic literature, analyzed IRS audit tools and procedures, and interviewed IRS officials. GAO assessed IRS audit selection procedures against relevant agency goals and objectives, key practices for evidence-based policymaking, and standards for internal control.

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Electricity: Information on Peak Demand Power Plants

What GAO Found Peak demand power plants, known as peakers, are part of the U.S. energy infrastructure. They generally operate at times during the day when cooling and heating needs are the highest among households. Peakers are used to supplement other types of power plants, such as baseload and intermediate plants that supply a more consistent amount of electricity to meet demand throughout the day. Example of Annual Average Hourly Capacity Factors by Plant Type Note: A plant’s capacity factor is the percent of energy produced of the total energy that could have been produced at continuous full power operation during a certain time frame. There were 999 peakers in the U.S. in 2021, according to GAO's analysis of the most recent Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data. Most of these peakers were fueled by natural gas. In 2021, peakers accounted for 3.1 percent of annual net electricity generation and 19 percent of total designed full-load sustained output for all power plants. Peakers, and other plants, emit multiple pollutants associated with various negative health effects for the people exposed, according to EPA data and GAO's review of selected studies. For instance, short-term exposure to sulfur dioxide, which peakers emit, can lead to harmful respiratory effects, such as decreased lung function, cough, chest tightness, and throat irritation. Using a statistical analysis, GAO found that historically disadvantaged communities (i.e., census tracts with higher percentages of historically disadvantaged racial or ethnic populations) are associated with being closer to peakers. For example, based on GAO's model, a community that is 71 percent historically disadvantaged is expected to be 9 percent closer to the nearest peaker than a community that is 40 percent historically disadvantaged. In addition, the model showed the estimated distance to the nearest peaker varies according to population density. Urban communities have smaller estimated distances to the nearest peaker compared with similar rural or suburban communities. When operating, peakers emit pollutants like those from other power plants that use fossil fuels, such as nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide. According to EPA data, peakers operate less frequently overall than non-peakers, but when they do operate, they emit more pollution. For example, peakers' total annual sulfur dioxide emissions were 96.8 percent lower than non-peakers, but the median peaker emitted 1.6 times more sulfur dioxide per unit of electricity generated than the median non-peaker. This increase may occur because peakers may not have effective, if any, emissions control technology. Available alternatives, such as battery storage systems, could replace fossil-fueled peakers and decrease associated emissions. However, replacing peakers with alternatives has potential challenges including cost, reliability, and location, according to studies and stakeholders GAO interviewed. Why GAO Did This Study Environmental advocacy groups, and some congressional leaders have expressed concerns that peakers may be less efficient than non-peakers, meaning peakers may expend more energy that is not converted into electricity than other types of plants. Further, due to the nature of their operations, peakers may also negatively affect the air quality in communities around the plants, which may be historically disadvantaged or disproportionately low-income. GAO was asked to examine pollution from peakers across the nation. This report provides information on the number and location of peakers in the U.S., their proximity to historically disadvantaged or disproportionately low-income communities, to what extent they emit pollutants and how these pollutants affect the health of people exposed, and alternatives for replacing them. To perform this work, GAO analyzed data from EPA, the U.S. Department of Energy, and other sources, reviewed relevant literature, and interviewed federal officials and stakeholders from 19 state, industry, and nongovernmental organizations representing a diversity of perspectives about peakers. For more information, contact Frank Rusco at 202-512-4598 or ruscof@gao.gov.

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Nuclear Nonproliferation: Efforts Are Underway to Address Factors Affecting the International Atomic Energy Agency's Safeguards Program

What GAO Found To verify that civilian nuclear material and activities are not being used for nuclear weapons, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) uses safeguards—technical measures and activities such as inspections and environmental sampling at nuclear facilities. The U.S. and other IAEA member countries support IAEA's safeguards program in several ways. First, all 178 member countries contribute to its regular budget, which funds the safeguards program and other programs. Second, the U.S. and 22 other countries plus the European Commission have established support programs that provide additional voluntary cash and in-kind assistance to the safeguards program. Third, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) supports domestic activities that indirectly support the safeguards program, such as technology research and development conducted at DOE national laboratories that IAEA could adopt. U.S. Contributions to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), 2022 U.S. contribution to IAEA's regular budget $105 milliona U.S. support program for IAEA safeguards $31 million in cash and in-kind assistance for more than 100 specific requests for safeguards assistance, such as providing technical experts U.S. activities that indirectly supported IAEA's safeguards program More than $103 million, such as for safeguards-related technology research Source: GAO analysis of Department of State and Department of Energy information. | GAO-24-106296 aThe total IAEA regular budget was approximately $418 million in 2022. Of this total, IAEA allocated approximately $161 million to its safeguards program. GAO identified a range of factors that could affect safeguards implementation and efforts IAEA and member countries are taking to address these factors. These factors include: Resource constraints. According to IAEA officials, IAEA aims to limit the growth of its regular budget. The safeguards program has had to rely on voluntary cash contributions from member countries to meet safeguards needs. Inflationary pressures have also reduced IAEA purchasing power. IAEA is expanding its resource base by encouraging more countries to establish support programs and has added three support programs since 2021. Anticipated growth of nuclear power. IAEA officials and several stakeholders identified the continued growth of nuclear power worldwide as a factor that is expected to increase demands on IAEA's resources. IAEA is taking steps to improve efficiency, such as increasing the use of remote monitoring of nuclear facilities. New types of nuclear facilities. The emergence of new types of nuclear facilities—such as advanced nuclear reactors—may require new and more resource-intensive safeguards approaches. IAEA officials and stakeholders said that the development of unique safeguards approaches for these new facility types could be complex, costly, and time-consuming. IAEA and member countries are working with developers of new nuclear facilities to ensure safeguards can be implemented effectively. Why GAO Did This Study IAEA plays a crucial role in supporting nuclear nonproliferation and facilitating peaceful uses of nuclear energy through its safeguards program. In 2022, IAEA operated this program in 188 countries with which it had safeguards agreements (countries do not have to be IAEA members to have a safeguards agreement with IAEA). The U.S., which led the establishment of IAEA—a United Nations-affiliated organization—in the 1950s, provides financial and other assistance to the agency to improve safeguards. The House report accompanying the fiscal year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act included a provision for GAO to review IAEA's safeguards program and U.S. support for it. This report examines (1) how the U.S. and other member countries support IAEA safeguards, and (2) what key factors IAEA officials and stakeholders have identified that could affect IAEA's implementation of safeguards and the efforts being taken to address these factors. GAO reviewed IAEA and U.S. agency documentation for 2021 and 2022, and interviewed U.S. State Department and DOE officials to identify U.S. and other member country contributions that support safeguards. Data from 2022 were the most recent at the time of our review. To identify factors that could affect safeguards implementation, GAO reviewed IAEA documentation and interviewed IAEA officials at its headquarters in Vienna, Austria. GAO also interviewed stakeholders—including U.S. and seven other member country officials and U.S. national laboratory representatives—and conducted a literature review. For more information, contact Allison Bawden at (202) 512-3841 or bawdena@gao.gov.

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Priority Open Recommendations: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

What GAO Found In May 2023, GAO identified eight priority recommendations for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Since then, NRC has implemented one of those eight priority recommendations, which improved the security of personally identifiable information. Seven priority recommendations remain open. In May 2024, GAO identified one additional priority recommendation for NRC, bringing the total number to eight. The eight recommendations involve the following areas: Addressing the security of radiological sources Improving the reliability of cost estimates NRC's continued attention to these issues could lead to significant improvements in government operations. Why GAO Did This Study Priority open recommendations are the GAO recommendations that warrant priority attention from heads of key departments or agencies because their implementation could save large amounts of money; improve congressional or executive branch decision-making on major issues; eliminate mismanagement, fraud, and abuse; or ensure that programs comply with laws and that funds are legally spent, among other benefits. Since 2015, GAO has sent letters to selected agencies to highlight the importance of implementing such recommendations. For more information, contact Mark Gaffigan at (202) 512-3841 or gaffiganm@gao.gov.

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