Office of the Spokesperson
The Department of State has no greater responsibility than the safety and security of U.S. citizens overseas. We are committed to providing U.S. citizens with up-to-date and timely information, so they are informed as they make international travel plans and when they are abroad.
Given the increases in international travel, the availability of effective COVID-19 mitigation measures, and recently announced changes to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) COVID-19 Travel Health Notice (THN) process, we have reassessed how COVID-19 considerations factor into our Travel Advisory levels for U.S. citizens.
Starting next week, the State Department Travel Advisory levels will no longer automatically correlate with the CDC COVID-19 THN level. However, if the CDC raises a country’s COVID-19 THN to a Level 4, the State Department’s Travel Advisory for that country will also be raised to a Level 4: Do Not Travel due to COVID-19.
This update will leave approximately 10% of all Travel Advisories at Level 4: Do Not Travel. This 10% includes Level 4 Travel Advisories for all risk indicators, not just COVID-19. We believe the updated framework will help U.S. citizens make better informed decisions about the safety of international travel.
Although conditions have recently improved, the COVID-19 pandemic is not over. We continue to advise travelers to consider COVID-19 conditions and restrictions at their destinations when considering international travel. Our embassies and consulates around the world will continue to provide the latest country-specific COVID-19-related information on their websites. To see the latest State Department Travel Advisories for any country in the world, visit travel.state.gov. We encourage U.S. citizens who are considering international travel this summer to check their passport expiration date and act now to renew or apply for the first time. Keep in mind many countries require passports to have at least six months’ remaining validity for entry. Routine passport processing can take eight to eleven weeks. For information on U.S. passports, please visit travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/passports.html.
For press inquiries, please contact CAPRESSREQUESTS@state.gov.
- North Carolina Man Charged with Fraudulently Seeking Over $6 Million in COVID Relief Funds
September 29, 2020A North Carolina man was charged with fraudulently seeking over $6 million in Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans, announced Acting Assistant Attorney General Brian C. Rabbitt of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division and U.S. Attorney Robert J. Higdon Jr. of the Eastern District of North Carolina.
- Army and Marine Corps Training: Better Performance and Cost Data Needed to More Fully Assess Simulation-Based Efforts
August 24, 2021What GAO FoundOver the past several decades, the Army and Marine Corps have increased their use of simulation-based training–simulators and computer-based simulations. Historically, the aviation communities in both services have used simulators to train servicemembers in tasks such as takeoffs, and emergency procedures that could not be taught safely live. In contrast, the services’ ground communities used limited simulations prior to 2000. However, advances in technology, and emerging conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan have led to increased use of simulation-based training in the ground forces. For example, in response to increases in vehicle rollovers, both services began using simulators to train servicemembers to safely evacuate vehicles. The services are also collaborating in the development of some simulation-based training devices. For instance, according to Marine Corps officials, the service reused 87 percent of the Army’s Homestation Instrumentation Training System’s components in its own training system, achieving about $11 million in cost avoidance and saving an estimated 7 years in fielding time. The services are also taking steps to better integrate live and simulation-based training, developing technical capabilities to connect previously incompatible simulation-based training devices. The Army’s capability is now being fielded, and the Marine Corps’ is in the initial development phase.The Army and Marine Corps consider various factors in determining whether to use live or simulation-based training, but lack key performance and cost information that would enhance their ability to determine the optimal mix of training and prioritize related investments. As the services identify which requirements can be met with either live or simulation-based training or both, they consider factors such as safety and training mission. Also, they have cited numerous benefits of simulation-based training, such as improving servicemember performance in live training events, and reducing operating costs. Both services rely on subject matter experts, who develop their training programs, and after action reports from deployments and training exercises for information on how servicemembers may have benefited from simulation-based training. However, neither service has established outcome metrics to assist them in more precisely measuring the impact of using simulation-based devices to improve performance or proficiency. Leading management practices recognize that performance metrics can help agencies determine the contributions that training makes to improve results. Army and Marine Corps officials also generally consider simulation-based training to be less costly than live training and analyze some data, such as life cycle costs, when considering options to acquire a particular simulation-based training device. However, once simulation-based training devices are fielded, the services neither reevaluate cost information as they determine the mix of training nor have a methodology for determining the costs associated with simulation-based training. Federal internal control standards state that decision makers need visibility over a program’s financial data to determine whether the program is meeting the agencies’ goals and effectively using resources. Without better performance and cost data, the services lack the information they need to make more fully informed decisions in the future regarding the optimal mix of training and how best to target investments for simulation-based training capabilities.Why GAO Did This StudyThe Army and Marine Corps use live and simulation-based training to meet training goals and objectives. Service officials have noted benefits from the use of simulation-based training–both in terms of training effectiveness and in cost savings or cost avoidance. A House report accompanying the bill for the National Defense Authorization Act for 2012 mandated GAO to review the status of the military services’ training programs. This report follows GAO’s reports on the Navy and Air Force, and assesses (1) changes in the Army’s and Marine Corps’ use of simulation-based training, including efforts to integrate live and simulation-based training capabilities; and (2) the factors the Army and Marine Corps consider in determining whether to use live or simulation-based training, including the extent to which they consider performance and cost information. GAO focused on a broad cross-section of occupations (e.g., aviation, armor, artillery), and analyzed service training strategies and other documents; and conducted six site visits and interviewed service officials involved with training and training development for the selected occupations.
- Black Lung Benefits Program: Continued Inaction on Coal Operator Self-Insurance Increases Financial Risk to Trust Fund
December 3, 2021What GAO Found The Department of Labor (DOL) took initial steps to implement GAO’s recommendations to improve its oversight of self-insured coal mine operators, but its reform effort was hindered by the COVID-19 pandemic and a review of the program by the current administration, according to DOL officials. Black lung benefits are generally paid by liable coal mine operators, and federal law generally requires coal mine operators to secure their black lung benefit liability. Operators are allowed to self-insure if they meet certain DOL conditions. The federal government’s Black Lung Disability Trust Fund (Trust Fund) pays benefits when no responsible mine operator can be identified or the liable mine operator does not pay. This can happen, for example, when an operator goes bankrupt. As GAO reported in 2020, the bankruptcies of some self-insured operators that occurred from 2014 through 2016 led to the transfer of $865 million in estimated benefit responsibility to the Trust Fund, according to DOL. This occurs when the amount of collateral DOL requires from a self-insured coal operator does not fully cover the operator’s benefit responsibility should the operator become insolvent. Since 2016, several other self-insured operators have also filed for bankruptcy, according to DOL. In February 2020, DOL sent letters to 14 self-insured operators asking them to provide about $251 million in total collateral. Half of the coal operators provided the collateral DOL requested and the other half appealed, according to DOL. DOL officials said their ability to resolve the appeals was hindered by the COVID-19 pandemic and they suspended reviews of coal operator appeals. In December 2020, DOL issued a preliminary bulletin for coal operator self-insurance that described significant changes and included actions that would have addressed GAO’s recommendations. For instance, DOL set a goal to resolve coal operator appeals within 90 days after receiving supporting documents or meeting with the operator to discuss their concerns. However, in February 2021, DOL rescinded the preliminary bulletin due to a program review by the current administration, according to DOL officials. DOL officials said they have taken no further actions to resolve appeals or to collect any additional collateral or other information from self-insured operators. As a result, DOL has not obtained about $186 million in requested collateral from self-insured operators that appealed DOL’s requested collateral. In addition, one of these operators, Lighthouse Resources, filed for bankruptcy in December 2020; this could result in a transfer of about $2.4 million in estimated benefit responsibility to the Trust Fund, according to DOL. In addition, two operators DOL said no longer met their requirements to self-insure almost two years ago remain self-insured. In November 2021, DOL officials said the current administration’s program review is complete, but could not describe any anticipated changes to coal operator self-insurance going forward. Given that the Trust Fund had to borrow about $2.3 billion from the U.S. Treasury in fiscal year 2021 to make needed expenditures, we reiterate that DOL should take action to address our previous recommendations to help prevent additional benefit liabilities from transferring to the Trust Fund. Why GAO Did This Study The Trust Fund, which pays benefits to coal miners disabled due to black lung, faces financial challenges. It has borrowed from the U.S. Treasury’s general fund almost every year since 1979 to make needed expenditures. In February 2020, GAO found that DOL’s limited oversight of coal mine operator insurance exposed the Trust Fund to additional financial risk. This testimony is based on reports GAO issued in 2020 and 2018. GAO found in 2020 that in overseeing coal operator self-insurance DOL did not (1) estimate future benefit liability when setting the amount of collateral required to self-insure, (2) regularly review operators to assess whether the required amount of collateral should change, or (3) always take action to protect the Trust Fund by revoking an operator’s ability to self-insure as appropriate. To obtain updated information for this hearing statement, GAO interviewed DOL officials in November 2021 and reviewed agency documentation.
- Military Readiness: DOD Has Not Yet Incorporated Leading Practices of a Strategic Management Planning Framework in Retrograde and Reset Guidance
August 24, 2021What GAO Found The Department of Defense (DOD) has not established a strategic policy for the retrograde and reset of equipment during contingency operations that incorporates key elements of leading practices for sound strategic management planning. Because DOD and the military services do not separately track the “reconstitution” of units, which includes personnel and training costs, the focus of GAO’s report is on the retrograde and reset of equipment. According to DOD’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, “retrograde” refers to the process for the movement of nonunit equipment and materiel from a forward location to a reset program or to another directed area of operations. “Reset” refers to a set of actions to restore equipment to a desired level of combat capability commensurate with a unit’s future mission. GAO found that there was no consensus among the officials we spoke with regarding which organization should lead the effort to develop a DOD-wide policy. GAO continues to believe that its May 2016 recommendation for DOD to develop a strategic policy for retrograde and reset that incorporates key elements of strategic management planning is valid. Although the Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller) has provided definitions of terms for the services to use in reporting the cost of contingency operations, DOD has not ensured that the services use consistent information and descriptions of key terms regarding retrograde and reset in policy and guidance. Although DOD updated the relevant chapter of the Financial Management Regulation in December 2017 to include definitions of “reset” and “retrograde,” GAO found that the terms retrograde and reset are not used consistently by the department and the services. As a result, GAO believes that to fully meet the intent of its May 2016 recommendation DOD needs to take action to ensure that these terms are uniformly defined and consistently used throughout the services. The Marine Corps has been implementing its plan for the retrograde and reset of its equipment, but the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force have no immediate plans to develop reset plans. Marine Corps officials reported that the implementation of reset activities for Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan is 99-percent complete and will be completed in May 2019. Navy and Air Force officials cited the need for a DOD-wide policy before they can establish service-specific plans. GAO continues to believe that its May 2016 recommendation for the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force to develop service-specific implementation plans for retrograde and reset is valid. Furthermore, GAO continues to believe that DOD needs to establish a strategic policy consistent with leading practices on sound strategic management planning to guide and inform the services’ plans, as previously discussed. Why GAO Did This Study Section 324 of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2014 required DOD to establish a policy regarding the retrograde, reconstitution, and replacement of units and materiel used to support overseas contingency operations and to submit a plan for implementation of the policy within 90 days of the enactment of the NDAA. It also required DOD to submit annual updates (for the next 3 years) to congressional defense committees on its progress toward meeting the goals of the plan. The act included a provision for GAO to review and report on DOD’s policy, implementation plan, and annual updates. For this report on DOD’s third and final annual update, GAO evaluated the extent to which DOD has addressed GAO’s May 2016 recommendations. Specifically, GAO assessed the extent to which (1) DOD has established a strategic policy consistent with leading practices on sound strategic management planning for the retrograde and reset of equipment that supports overseas contingency operations, (2) DOD has developed and required the use of consistent information and descriptions of key terms regarding retrograde and reset in relevant policy and other guidance, and (3) each of the military services has developed and implemented a service-specific plan consistent with leading practices on sound strategic management planning for the retrograde and reset that supports overseas contingency operations. To address these objectives, GAO reviewed DOD reports, interviewed officials, and reviewed/assessed agency provided documents.
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- Justice Department Announces Superseding Indictment Charging 12 in Gun-Running Conspiracy to Supply Firearms to Gang Members in Chicago
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- Defense Health Care: Efforts to Ensure Beneficiaries Access Specialty Care and Receive Timely and Effective Care
December 22, 2020The Department of Defense (DOD) has a general expectation that its health care beneficiaries, upon receiving an urgent referral to see a specialist, will access that specialty care in 3 days or less. GAO’s analysis of 16,754 urgent referrals at military treatment facilities (MTF) shows that DOD beneficiaries accessed specialty care services in 3 days or less for more than half of the urgent referrals. About 9 percent of the urgent referrals involved beneficiaries waiting 3 weeks or longer to be seen. According to DOD officials, some beneficiaries may have waited longer than 3 days due to factors such as patient preference, appointment availability, or waiting for lab results. Time to access care varied by specialty, with beneficiaries urgently referred to ophthalmology generally seeing a specialist the fastest, and those urgently referred to mental health and oncology generally waiting the longest. According to DOD officials, MTFs are responsible for monitoring beneficiaries’ access to specialty care through urgent referrals. GAO found that the monitoring processes used varied by MTF and specialty care clinic at the five selected MTFs that GAO reviewed. For example, officials from one MTF told GAO they centrally manage all urgent referrals using a daily report to address any delays, while officials from another MTF told GAO that individual specialty care clinics are responsible for managing their own urgent referrals. DOD officials acknowledged such variation and MTFs have been directed to centralize their referral management and monitoring processes—an effort that is currently underway. GAO found that DOD monitors the rates at which beneficiaries receive timely and effective care, in part, through 10 outpatient health care quality measures. These measures allow DOD to make comparisons to civilian health care systems, and they are reviewed by various DOD groups at least quarterly. However, DOD officials told GAO that since October 2017, they have been unable to monitor nine of the 10 measures for MTFs using Military Health System (MHS) Genesis, DOD’s new electronic health record system. According to the officials, DOD’s current data warehouse—a system that stores some MHS Genesis data and can be used by MTFs to create reports on quality measures—is not capable of producing accurate reports for those measures. DOD officials told GAO they expect to implement a new data warehouse by the end of 2020. DOD officials also said they are importing data related to quality measures into another system used for quality monitoring; however, DOD does not have a targeted date for completing these data imports. Until these actions are fully implemented, groups responsible for monitoring quality care will continue to lack the data needed to offer assurance that the growing number of MTFs using MHS Genesis are providing beneficiaries with timely and effective care that will lead to better health outcomes. A draft of this report recommended that DOD establish a timeline to complete importing the quality measure-related data from MHS Genesis into DOD’s system used for quality monitoring. In its review of the draft, DOD concurred with the recommendation and established a timeline for importing the data, to be available in DOD’s system no later than May 2021. After reviewing the information DOD provided, GAO removed the recommendation from the final report. DOD is responsible for ensuring that beneficiaries have access to specialty care for conditions that, while not life-threatening, require immediate attention, as well as for ensuring that beneficiaries receive timely and effective care for certain routine or other services. A report accompanying the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 included a provision for GAO to review the quality of health care in the MHS. This report examines (1) the timeliness with which beneficiaries access specialty care at MTFs through urgent referrals and DOD’s efforts to monitor access, and (2) DOD’s use of quality measures to monitor and improve the rates of timely and effective care received by beneficiaries at MTFs. GAO examined relevant policies, national DOD referral data (a total of 16,754 urgent referrals) for a 1-year period ending August 2019, and the most recent available quality measure data (April 2020). GAO interviewed officials from five MTFs, selected for variation in military services, geography, provision of select specialty services, and use of the electronic health record system. For more information, contact Debra A. Draper at (202) 512-7114 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
- [Protest of Navy Methods for Obtaining Information About Commercially Available Shotguns and Ammunition]
September 17, 2021A firm protested a Navy announcement to obtain information about commercially available shotguns and ammunition, contending that the announcement was ambiguous, capricious, and unduly restrictive. GAO held that it would not consider the protest, since the announcement was for information purposes only and did not involve the issuance of a solicitation or the award or proposed award of a contract. Accordingly, the protest was dismissed.
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