The federal government’s quick action to issue stimulus payments in the wake of the coronavirus crisis led to more than a billion dollars of fraudulent payments, while slow action to address the health risks might have worsened the outbreak, according to a report by a government watchdog.

“In emergency situations, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, it is understandable, and appropriate, for agencies to want to get funds out the door quickly,” the Government Accountability Office said in the report released Thursday. “However, without the necessary safeguards in place, funds may not get to the intended places or be used for the intended purposes.”

Still, the government has yet to spend much of the $2.6 trillion that Congress has approved for the coronavirus response. So far, only $643 billion has gone to the six largest programs, which include the corporate bailout fund, small business loans and funding for health care providers.

The report is the most comprehensive assessment to date of the government’s efforts to combat the health and economic consequences of the pandemic.

Here are the key takeaways:

Testing Failures Bedevil The U.S.
Despite President Donald Trump’s boasts about the U.S. leading the world in Covid-19 testing, the GAO found that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported incomplete and inconsistent data on viral testing from state and local health departments. That made it more difficult to track and mitigate infections and guide decisions about re-opening communities, the GAO said.

The report also highlighted the insufficient equipment and supplies in the Strategic National Stockpile to respond to the pandemic, as well as concerns expressed by state and local officials about the “distribution, acquisition and adequacy of supplies.”

While steps have been taken to meet the unprecedented need for information testing, the CDC reported data from different sources that have varied over time and haven’t been counting tests the same way, the GAO found.

For example, some states count the number of people tested while others count the number of samples tested -- which could include several tests from one person -- and some data didn’t distinguish between viral and antibody testing, the report said.

The Department of Health and Human Services issued guidance on June 4 that would help with data collection and reporting, and the CDC maintains it used the best testing data available, the report added.

IRS Should Contact Relatives Of Deceased
The Internal Revenue Service issued about 1.1 million economic stimulus payments worth $1.4 billion to people who have recently died, which largely went to their next of kin. The IRS has said that recipients of those payments should return the money, but many people may be unaware that they are required to do so.

The report recommended the IRS look at “cost effective options for notifying ineligible recipients on how to return payments.” The IRS hasn’t said whether it would require that the money be returned or how it plans to enforce its position that the payments should be sent back.

The GAO also recommended that Congress explicitly allow the Social Security Administration to share its full death data with the Treasury Department to prevent any future payments to ineligible individuals.

PPP Is Still A Black Box
The GAO said it “encountered the most difficulty trying to obtain information” from the Small Business Administration, which has overseen the approval of more than 4.7 million forgivable Paycheck Protection Program loans totaling $516.5 billion. Spokesman Chuck Young said the agency agreed on Wednesday to provide the requested loan data but wants a meeting first to discuss how the GAO will restrict proprietary and personal information.

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