U.S. watchdog details COVID-19 response failings, including 1.1 million cheques to the deceased

Incomplete and inconsistent testing data reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention make it more difficult to know the COVID-19 infection rate and take informed decisions on reopening communities, a U.S. government watchdog said.

GAO also cites problems with business loan process, CDC testing inconsistencies

In this April 23, 2020, file photo, U.S. President Donald Trump's name is seen on a stimulus cheque issued by the IRS to help combat the adverse economic effects of the COVID-19 outbreak. More than 1.1 million cheques went out to deceased individuals, a U.S. government watchdog said. (Eric Gay/The Associated Press)

Incomplete and inconsistent testing data reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention make it more difficult to know the COVID-19 infection rate and take informed decisions on reopening communities, a U.S. government watchdog said.

The report issued by the Government Accountability Office on Thursday marked the first review of the government's response to the coronavirus pandemic, and made recommendations to lawmakers how to improve the fight to come out of the crisis.

The report detailed difficulties the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) had in determining individual eligibility for stimulus cheques. The challenges included delivering payments to those who did not file tax returns the past two years as well as those without bank accounts or with limited internet access.

Crucially, the report said, the Treasury Department rushed to get stimulus cheques out and did not avail itself to third-party data such as death records maintained by the Social Security Administration that the IRS in ordinary times utilizes.

"Treasury and IRS did not use the death records to stop payments to deceased individuals for the first three batches of payments because of the legal interpretation under which IRS was operating.… According to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, as of April 30, almost 1.1 million payments totalling nearly $1.4 billion US had gone to decedents."

The revelation led to pained reaction from both sides of the aisle.

"GAO found that more than $1 trillion in taxpayer funds have already been obligated — including more than $1 billion to deceased individuals — with little transparency into how that money is being spent," New York's Carolyn Maloney, the Democratic chair of the House's oversight committee, said in a statement.

Kentucky's Thomas Massie, long a stickler on what he considers wasteful government spending, shared a popular GIF.

Lack of planning criticized

Harsh criticism was also directed at the Small Business Administration (SBA), which oversees a $670-billion US emergency loan program to help companies survive the pandemic, and the lack of a plan from the Department of Transportation to improve the aviation sector's response to outbreaks.

Detailing its findings on the coronavirus testing data, the GAO said the data that was collected at times included antibody tests that detect prior infections, and sometimes included counts on the number of samples tested, which could include multiple tests for one person.

"The absence of complete and consistent COVID-19 testing data reported through May 31, 2020, has made it more difficult to track and know the infection rate, mitigate the effect of infections and inform decisions on reopening communities," the watchdog said.

The report also said the United States is missing a national aviation-preparedness plan for infectious diseases.

"While the Department of Transportation agreed that a plan is needed, as of May 2020, no such plan had been developed," the watchdog said. It said the Transportation Department has maintained that other U.S. agencies should take the lead in planning for outbreaks.

Read the report highlights:

As part of its recommendations to U.S. lawmakers, the watchdog said it is urging them to take legislative action to require the Transportation Department to work with others to develop a national plan.

It criticized the SBA for failing to give detailed descriptions of loans made in its data, and not outlining plans to review loans worth less than $2 million.

"We encountered the most difficulty trying to obtain information from the Small Business Administration (SBA)," said the watchdog. "SBA to date has failed to provide information critical to our review."

The SBA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The level of transparency around U.S. government spending to fight the pandemic has been a contentious issue between various watchdogs and government agencies.

According to the watchdog, the U.S. government has set aside $2.6 trillion worth of spending to fight the pandemic, but spending so far is unknown as all agencies are not required to report their expenditures until July 2020.

With files from CBC News

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