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GAO: Stimulus checks sent to dead people among coronavirus response problems

Head of watchdog agency to testify on findings before House panel

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin arrives on Capitol Hill on June 10.
Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin arrives on Capitol Hill on June 10. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Corrected 6:30 p.m. | The Government Accountability Office criticized the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic on multiple fronts Thursday, including the issuing of more than $1 billion in stimulus checks to deceased individuals.

In a report issued the day before a House Coronavirus Select Committee hearing on the GAO findings, the agency took the administration to task for actions on testing, protective equipment for medical personnel, and the Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP, created to respond to the pandemic.

The GAO noted that the Treasury Department’s inspector general for tax administration reported that by the end of April, nearly 1.1 million payments, totaling almost $1.4 billion, went to deceased people.

It also documents problems with receiving requested materials from agencies such as the Department of Health and Human Services, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Small Business Administration.

The House Oversight and Reform Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis will hear from Gene L. Dodaro, head of the GAO, on Friday. House Democrats are likely to seize on the critiques during their questioning.

“Today’s GAO report comes as our nation faces the grim reality that the Trump Administration’s policies have failed to contain the coronavirus outbreak,” said Chairman James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., in a statement. “This report details how missteps led to ‘significant delays in testing,’ shortages in critical supplies, and ‘significant risk’ of fraud in the Paycheck Protection Program.”

Clyburn also reiterated GAO’s concerns about agencies “withholding ‘critical’ information and preventing GAO from completing its work.”

The report highlights multiple issues with the PPP initiative, which provides forgivable loans to companies, saying that “limited safeguards and lack of timely and complete guidance and oversight planning have increased the likelihood that borrowers may misuse or improperly receive loan proceeds.”

It also specifically calls out issues with the Department of Labor, the IRS, the SBA, and aviation safety officials.

It also suggests that “there is a significant risk that some fraudulent or inflated applications were approved.”

COVID-19 testing was a challenge from the start. The first COVID-19 test, the report says, “experienced accuracy and reliability issues that resulted in significant delays in testing nationwide during the critical early weeks of the outbreak.” 

The report also expresses concerns about the “distribution, acquisition, and adequacy of supplies from the Strategic National Stockpile.”

GAO provides six recommendations for Congress and the administration.

It suggests that Congress implement a national aviation-preparedness plan to limit the spread of communicable diseases. It also suggests changing the Treasury Department’s access to death records to deal with stimulus checks to deceased people, and having the IRS come up with a method to recoup those payments and others made to ineligible recipients, something it said the IRS agreed to do.

GAO also said the administration did not properly implement a boost in Medicaid payments to states, and urged the use of GAO’s suggested formula for future changes to the Federal Medical Assistance Percentage formula for Medicaid. Congress previously increased the FMAP for states by 6.2 percent for the public health emergency to cover additional costs for states.

“GAO’s report provides a detailed accounting of the Trump Administration’s inept handling of the coronavirus pandemic,” said House Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J. “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.”

The White House and the Department of Health and Human Services did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

FiscalNote, the parent company of CQ Roll Call, has received a loan under the Paycheck Protection Program.

Correction: this report was revised to accurately reflect Gene L. Dodaro’s title.

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