Cyber Risks and Critical Infrastructure (podcast)

GAO Podcast IconCritical infrastructures—the facilities and systems that support banking, commerce, energy, and agriculture—are vital to our national economy, security, and public health. They’re also vulnerable to cyberattacks, a growing concern in an increasingly connected world.

Listen to Greg Wilshusen, a director in our Information Technology team, discuss his team’s recent review of how federal agencies mitigate cyber risks to critical infrastructures.

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How Secure Is Social Security?

Photo of Social Security cardsWe often write about Social Security, and for good reason: it faces financial challenges and needs attention soon. The recently passed Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 made a number of changes to temporarily stave off insolvency for Social Security’s disability program, buying policymakers some time to agree on a long-term solution.

But we’re not out of the woods. Social Security remains on a financially unsustainable path.

Our newly released guide to Social Security’s Future provides an overview of Social Security’s problems and the options for fixing them.

A tale of two programs

Social Security benefits are paid from two trust funds. One, called Old-Age and Survivors Insurance, is for the retirement program. The other, aptly named Disability Insurance, is for the disability program.

Since 2010, the two funds have together paid out more each year than they’ve collected in tax revenues. The Disability Insurance trust fund was projected to face a financial shortfall at the end of 2016, with revenues covering only 81 percent of benefits paid.

The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 extends the life of the Disability Insurance trust fund by 6 years. A greater share of payroll taxes will go to the disability trust fund, pushing the fund’s depletion date to 2022.

The depletion date for the retirement fund remains the same: 2035.

Difficult, but doable, choices

For Social Security to keep paying full benefits as promised, something has to change. This comes as no surprise because Social Security’s actuaries have projected these financial challenges for years, and policymakers and experts have developed various policy options to address them.

Solving Social Security’s challenges in the long run calls for difficult—but doable—choices among a range of options for both the retirement and disability programs, such as

  • changing benefits and eligibility,
  • changing how benefits grow over time, and
  • raising revenues for Social Security.

Acting soon

In short, further action should be taken soon—ideally well before the disability trust fund is depleted. Prompt action means that changes could be phased in over time, giving younger people time to adjust their retirement plans and reducing the impact on those who now rely on Social Security for most of their income. It will be important for policymakers to take the steps necessary to achieve the desired balance between income adequacy and individual equity, while also moving toward longer-term program solvency.

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Savings in Security? TSA vs. Private Airport Screeners (podcast)

GAO Podcast IconSome 1.8 million passengers and their property get screened by the Transportation Security Administration at U.S. airports every day. In 2004, TSA began letting airports apply to use private contractors, instead of TSA employees, for screening.

Jenny Grover, a director in our Homeland Security and Justice team, discusses her team’s recent review of how TSA compares the costs of these two approaches.


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Fraud Awareness Week

Photo of GAO Special Agent badgeAs the congressional watchdog, we have dedicated resources to identify, prevent, and respond to allegations of federal government fraud, waste, and abuse because these can result in misuse of taxpayer funds. That’s your money! For International Fraud Awareness Week, here’s a glimpse at what’s known about the costs of federal fraud, and a look at some of our work to stop it.

The hidden costs of fraud

No one can calculate exactly how many federal dollars are lost to fraud. That’s because not all fraud is detected or reported. Moreover, only a court or other adjudicative system can determine whether a specific act is in fact fraud. As a result, we generally include “potential fraud” in our definition of “fraud” to capture suspicious acts that haven’t been officially ruled as fraud.

That said, we can put a number on improper payments. While all fraud involving federal dollars is considered an improper payment, not all improper payments are fraud. An improper payment includes any payment that should not have been made or that was made in an incorrect amount, including overpayments and underpayments. Among other things, it includes payment to an ineligible recipient, payment for an ineligible good or service, and any duplicate payment. While improper payment estimates are not intended to measure fraud in a particular program, they can help us spot problem areas.

In October of 2015, we reported that the improper payment estimate for federal agencies was $124.7 billion, up nearly $19 billion from fiscal year 2013.

Figure 1: Cumulative Improper Payment Estimates for Fiscal Years 2003 through 2014 (Excerpted from GAO-16-92T)

The increase was primarily due to improper payments in Medicare, Medicaid, and the Earned Income Tax Credit programs.

Figure 2: Government-Wide Improper Payment Estimates by Program for Fiscal Year 2014(Excerpted from GAO-16-92T)

What’s a watchdog to do?

We’ve taken several steps to fight federal fraud. For example, we’ve investigated and reported on health care fraud related to Medicaid pharmacies, Medicare contractors, and the Affordable Care Act.

We’ve also looked at potential fraud from those who receive federal benefits, such as people trying to get Medicaid or disability insurance for which they’re not eligible. Businesses, such as those that contract to use VA properties, can also try to commit fraud.

To conduct these and other investigations, we have staff who are subject matter experts on government fraud, including certified fraud examiners, data analysts, and investigators.

To help federal managers proactively prevent, detect, and respond to fraud in a strategic, risk-based manner, we also published the Fraud Risk Management Framework in July 2015.

Help us hold the federal government accountable!

What should you do if you suspect federal government fraud, waste, or abuse? Contact our FraudNet:

1-800-424-5454 or e-mail

Since 1979, we’ve provided an outlet for anyone—federal employees, contractors, or members of the general public—to report allegations of fraud, waste, or abuse in federal programs. Our Fraudnet team fields information and tips concerning fraud and ensures the proper oversight entities receive the information.

  • Questions on the content of this post? Contact Steve Lord at
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Showing You (Even More!) Money: GAO’s 2015 Performance and Accountability Report

Cover of 2015 Performance and Accountability Report Each year we report the results of our work to you, the taxpayer. And this year we have more great news: we produced a record-high $74.7 billion in financial benefits. In other words, for every $1 Congress invested in us, we returned $134.

Listen to Tim Bowling, our Chief Quality Officer, explain how we did it:


There are also things that can’t be measured in terms of dollars. We found nearly 1,300 other ways to make government more efficient. How? By prompting federal agencies to do things like

  • improve their responses to hacks and other data breaches
  • remove Social Security numbers from Medicare cards and
  • protect consumers’ financial information.

We also referred over 1,000 cases of potential overpayment of benefits to the Social Security Administration for investigation, helping to keep Social Security benefits going to the right people.

And we did all this while maintaining our ranking as one of the Best Place to Work in the federal government—including #1 for our diversity and inclusion efforts among mid-size agencies.

Our 2015 Performance and Accountability Report has the full details on what we accomplished in the past fiscal year, information on how we calculate results and find savings, and what’s on the horizon for next year.

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Women’s Health and Clinical Trials

Thumbnail Health CareBiological differences between women and men sometimes lead drugs, diseases, and treatments to affect them differently. Women make up over half the U.S. population; so why don’t we know more about how they respond to medical treatments? Today’s WatchBlog explores what we found when we looked at women in clinical trials.

The difference between men and women

For years, women weren’t routinely included in clinical research. Until at least the 1980s, treatment protocols didn’t take into account biological differences between men and women.

This matters because some drugs affect women differently than men—sometimes with dangerous effects. You might recall a popular sleep drug making news when FDA lowered the recommended dose for women. The earlier recommended dosage had been based on the drug’s effect in men and was too much for women—putting them at risk of driving while impaired the following day.

It’s not just treatments that differ. Symptoms of cardiovascular disease, lung cancer, depression, and Alzheimer’s disease can all appear differently in women.

When women aren’t included in clinical research, the studies can’t identify potential differences in treatment effects, so health care providers may not have important information for treating women.

Enrolling women

The good news is that more women are enrolled in clinical studies funded by the National Institutes of Health. This is important because NIH is the largest source of public funds for clinical research.

In fact, in each of the past 10 years, more women than men were enrolled in all NIH-funded clinical studies, including phase III trials, the largest trials that most directly affect patient care.

GAO-16-13(Excerpted from GAO-16-13)

Depends what you’re looking for

Having more women in clinical trials is great—if those trials look for differences between men and women. Yet NIH doesn’t know how many trials are explicitly looking for such differences.

So, even with more women in trials, it’s unclear whether this improvement will result in researchers identifying more key differences between men and women, and ultimately, better clinical outcomes for women.

We made 5 recommendations to improve NIH’s oversight of women in clinical trials and NIH plans to take actions to implement them all.

  • Questions on the content of this post? Contact Linda Kohn at
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The Buy Indian Act: A Work in Progress

thumbnail environmentAmerican Indians and Alaska Natives have a unique legal and political relationship with the federal government that gives the government responsibility for protecting and improving tribal interests. For Native American Heritage Month, we’re taking a look at one law meant to improve economic opportunities for Indian-owned businesses: the Buy Indian Act.

More than 100 years old and still evolving

The Buy Indian Act was signed into law on June 25, 1910, reading, in part:

So far as may be practicable Indian labor shall be employed, and purchases of the products…of Indian industry may be made in open market at the discretion of the Secretary of the Interior.

This was supposed to help Indian-owned businesses by letting certain federal agencies buy goods and services from them without using the normal competitive process. The act applied initially to the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs. In 1955, the Department of Health and Human Services’ Indian Health Service was added.

Yet the act itself is short on details. In fact, the entire thing is just 44 words.
It wasn’t until 2013—more than 100 years later—that Interior finalized the rules, regulations, and actual processes for buying from Indian-owned businesses. HHS had enacted similar regulations for the Indian Health Service in 1975.

Small use of a small act

Neither the Bureau of Indian Affairs nor the Indian Health Service is using the Buy Indian Act much. In fact, items bought under the act make up a small sliver of what the agencies agree to spend in contracts every year. Though, both agencies do use other means to purchase goods and services from Indian-owned businesses.

GAO-15-588(Excerpted from GAO-15-588)

Moreover, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service don’t really know how effectively they’re using the law. For example, they both require that contractors maintain their Indian-owned status to some degree and that at least half of subcontracts go to Indian firms.

However, headquarters for both the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service don’t collect data to ensure these and other requirements are actually being met. Regional offices handle most of these parts of Buy Indian Act contracts, and neither agency’s headquarters collect data on these requirements from their regional offices.

The Buy Indian Act has been around for more than a century but its implementation is clearly still a work in progress. We have made half a dozen recommendations to help fulfill the act’s purpose of promoting, supporting, and expanding economic development of tribal entities and their individual members.

  • Questions on the content of this post? Contact Bill Woods at
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Debt Limit 101

govCongress has voted to suspend the debt limit through March 15, 2017. But how could future lawmakers address this issue in order to save the federal government money and avoid future disruptions? Today’s WatchBlog examines the debt limit.

What is the debt limit? Continue reading

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Veterans’ Access to Mental Health Care (podcast)

GAO Podcast IconThe number of veterans receiving mental health care services from the Veterans Health Administration grew 63% between 2005 and 2013—about three times the rate for all health services. How has the increased demand affected veterans’ access to care?

Listen to Debra Draper, a director in our Health Care team, discuss her team’s recent review of this issue.

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Protecting against Insider Threats at DOD

thumbnail_defenseThirteen people were killed and dozens more injured when a gunman opened fire at Fort Hood, Texas, 6 years ago today. In what’s known as an insider threat, the gunman, a Department of Defense employee, had authorized access to the military base. Today’s WatchBlog looks at how DOD fights against various types of insider threats, whether they’re attacks like the Fort Hood tragedy, the Washington Navy Yard shooting, or the unauthorized release of classified information. Continue reading

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