Agencies tout better improper payment reporting, but Congress still waiting on results

The Office of Management and Budget said it's overhauling, the website the agency uses to report improper payments data. The original versio...

As government improper payments reached an all-time high in 2015, the Office of Management and Budget and individual agencies say their reporting and data on improper payments is getting better.

But many members of Congress say that reporting — let alone any progress on moving the payment total down — isn’t good enough.

Yet OMB said it would overhaul and update, the website it uses as a tool to report on agency improper payments and high-error programs, after it realized the data did not meet congressional reporting mandates.

OMB Controller Dave Mader said he assumed the site met the “letter and spirit” of the Improper Payments Elimination and Recovery Act, which Congress passed in 2010. The law requires that OMB submit an annual report on improper payments to Congress.

“What we were displaying was probably roughly 93 percent of the improper payments, but we were missing almost 7 percent of that,” Mader said during a Sept. 22  House Oversight and Government Reform Government Operations Subcommittee hearing. “There were a couple of other data elements that the statute required that we were not displaying.”

Since Mader and his staff met with Congress, OMB has been working to revise

“We’re ready to launch in the next couple of weeks a complete redo of in a way that will capture and display the data,” Mader said.

New data for fiscal 2016 should appear on the site within the January to March timeframe, he added.

Yet the Government Operations Subcommittee leadership remained skeptical of the fixes Mader described.

When Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), the subcommittee’s ranking member, asked the Health and Human Services Department about the percentage of payments the agency made due to fraud, HHS didn’t have an answer.

“We do not have a commonly accepted methodology for measuring the extent of fraud,” Shelia Conley, deputy chief financial officer for HHS, said. “We do, though, have other processes whereby we access the various risks that fraud could occur.”

The subcommittee said more data is important so that it can help agencies develop new strategies to combat the root causes of improper payments.

“When we look at the DATA Act, when we look at FITARA, when we look at all of these other issues, we made a bipartisan commitment to have good quality data that actually gives us actionable things,” Subcommittee Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) said.

Mader said he would work with Meadows and his staff to ensure that the reports on the new were up to congressional standards.

Agencies issued $136.7 billion in improper payments during fiscal 2015, the largest annual total since 2004 when agencies first began reporting data on the subject. The tally was $12 billion higher than what was previously projected for 2015 and raised the cumulative total of improper payments above $1 trillion for the first time.

“The problem is that each time we have this [hearing], we hear that [improper payments are] a top priority,” Meadows said. “And each time the number continues to rise. We have different hearings where we get stakeholders that are blamed or states that are blamed, and yet, there are times where the states want to come in and help, and there seems to be a reluctance from different agency heads on doing that.”

“If it’s the top priority, is it better suited for someone else to look at improper payments where we start a trend that goes down versus one that continues to go up? We’re not making progress.”

Mader, along with agencies like the Social Security Administration and HHS, argued they have made progress.

Agencies’ improper payment error rate has improved, Mader said. The error rate last year was 4.39 percent, nearly 1 percentage lower than the 5.2 percent error rate when President Barack Obama took office in 2009.

Mader also said he’s considering whether the administration should add another program integrity group at the executive level to review what measures agencies could implement to reduce improper payments within individual programs. Many departments have already formed their own, similar groups, he added.

The subcommittee said it was willing to work with OMB and the agencies to develop the right systems to make data-driven decisions on the root causes of improper payments and then find a strategy to combat them.

But it’s frustrated that the work OMB and agencies say they’ve done hasn’t appeared to make a big difference.

“Surely we can do better,” Connolly said. “Surely, as the chairman indicated and I echo his sentiments, it’s a little bit like Groundhog Day when we have these hearings, because I thought we might be making not such incremental progress as maybe spectacular progress with new data systems and new technology and the like.”

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