Twenty billion dollars is nothing to make fun of, even for a department the size of Veterans Affairs. But that’s how much extra VA got the CARES Pandemic Control Bill, which was passed last March. This year, however, VA did only about half committed the money. Sharon Silas, Director of Health at the Government Accountability Office, spoke with Federal Drive with Tom Temin about what else the surveillance agency found.
Tom Available: Sharon, good to have you back.
Sharon Silas: Great thanks for having me
Tom Available: So you’ve made up your mind, or I think you’ve been told, GAO was ordered by Congress to take a look at what happened to that 19.6 billion, to be precise, it wasn’t quite 20 billion. And only half committed a year later. Tell us more about what you looked at and what you found.
Sharon Silas: For sure. The CARES Act therefore required GAO to report on the ongoing monitoring and oversight of the federal government’s efforts in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic. Because of this, we try to understand how VA committed and expanded these additional funds, and then also to evaluate how VA monitored COVID-19 funding.
Tom Available: And so it seems like they got more money than they needed at that point in time.
Sharon Silas: Well, for fiscal 2020, VA’s annual budget was more than $ 200 billion. Most of that went into health care support administered by the Veterans Health Administration and then into benefits administered by the Veterans Benefits Administration. The CARES Act and the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, both passed in March 2020, provided additional funding of $ 19.6 billion. So that goes beyond the annual budget. And these funds should be specifically used to prevent, prepare for and respond to COVID-19. And to support COVID-19 testing during the pandemic. The bulk of this funding went to the Veterans Health Administration, followed by the VA Office of Information Technology.
Tom Available: Alright. By this point, as of March, when you actually looked, they had committed about $ 9 billion and spent about $ 8 billion. And what does it say about whether they need the other half of that money?
Sharon Silas: For sure. And you’re right, by the end of March 2021, VA had just spent more than half of that funding, about $ 9.9 billion out of $ 19.6 billion. One of the things that we saw while looking at VA’s commitment and spending of these funds is that there was some kind of time when they were ramped up in order to be able to monitor and track those funds. Some of the issues they had to deal with were setting up some new codes for their financial management system specifically aimed at tracking these additional funds. When VA initially attempted to launch and respond to COVID-19, they first coded a portion of the COVID-19-related expenses with obligations from annual funds. And so they later had to go back and re-code these to make sure they were actually headed for the extra funding. There were also some delays in the VA Office of Information Technology, which received the second largest portion of the funding from the adjuncts. However, the Information Technology Office for its delays and their process of recruiting additional staff also contributed to the slow growth in commitments and spending of funds. If you look at all of the year you can see that when they came up and started some of these processes, they were able to commit and spend some of that funds faster.
Tom Available: We speak to Sharon Silas, the director of health in the Government Accountability Office. But given the pace of a pandemic with fewer and fewer new cases emerging, frankly, they need fewer and fewer tests, do they need the other 9 or 10 billion that have not yet been signed?
Sharon Silas: For sure. Some of the funds that the Veterans Health Administration used during the period we studied went primarily towards community care, salaries and expenses, supplies and supplies, and helping homeless veterans. When we looked at what the Veterans Health Administration plans to use for the rest of the funds, they plan to use those funds to distribute vaccines, extra PPE, and keep doing COVID 19 tests. The Information Technology Office again received the second largest share of the funds – during the period we examined, they mainly committed funds for the operations and maintenance activities related to COVID-19 such as expanding telehealth for veterans and then teleworking for VA employees as well. With a view to their spending plans for the remainder of the fiscal year, they plan to use these funds for additional equipment, building network capacity, and purchasing software licenses. According to the spending plans and our discussions with VA officials, they plan to expand the remaining funds by the end of fiscal year 2021.
Tom Available: And of that total of 19.6 billion, how much was for the Information Technology Office?
Sharon Silas: About 11% of this funding went to the Office of Information Technology and 89% to the Veterans Health Administration. So the majority of the funds went into these two components of VA.
Tom Available: So about 2 billion, in other words
Sharon Silas: Yes.
Tom Available: And are you satisfied that the remaining spending you want to make is actually related to the pandemic – especially in the OIT?
Sharon Silas: Yes. As I mentioned earlier, when VA was responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, there were many attempts to predict where they would need these funds. And then, as the pandemic continued, they could make adjustments and better plan how to use those funds. So if you look at the spending plans for the rest of the fiscal year, it looks like the funding is being used appropriately.
Tom Available: And the coding problems and so on to make sure the right funds were booked in the right way. That’s kind of an OIT problem too, right, because they had to build the new codes and procedures into the accounting system – right?
Sharon Silas: Right, yes. Once they have the code in place and are also using the processes they already have, they have initiated or issued new guidelines to track these funds. All of these different elements were introduced during the pandemic and are now in place so they can properly track the funds as needed.
Tom Available: For sure. If it is a general concern of GAO, it may be outside the scope of the report. But I mean, it’s kind of a guise for GAO not to make sure that when agencies get a piece of capital S like this, they find an extra amount of money, no ways to spend it, to spend it, to spend it, but that they do really use what they need for the purpose of the hand for which it was used? And I should probably never say that out loud, but turn back a little.
Sharon Silas: I mean, for this review, at least, we did not assess how closely the VA components match the processes they developed to manage the additional funding. We have reviewed the VA financial management processes in the context of the federal standards for internal controls in terms of monitoring and communication. However, in the course of our review we looked at a non-generalized sample of VISNS, the networks and the financial coding for 10 national contracts and during the course of this review we found no non-compliance with their processes. However, in one report, we find that others have identified issues with VA’s financial management practices in the past.
Tom Available: So see any special recommendations from this look?
Sharon Silas: No, we didn’t have any recommendations for this review.
Tom Available: Alright. Sharon Silas is the director of health at GAO. As always, thank you very much.
Sharon Silas: Many Thanks.