5 Government Programs That Abuse Taxpayers’ Money
Policy + Politics

5 Government Programs That Abuse Taxpayers’ Money

REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

Each year, federal watchdogs at the Government Accountability Office publish a “hall of shame” list, calling out programs or agencies that are especially vulnerable to waste, fraud and abuse. 

The GAO’S “High Risk List” gets sent to Congress at the start of each year, accompanied by a lengthy report about the problem areas. Then watchdogs track progress for the rest of the year. Once the problem areas are resolved, they come off the list. More than a third of the high-risk areas that have been noted since 1990 have been removed after significant progress was made to address the problems, says GAO.   

Related: Two Decades of Waste, Fraud and Abuse—Still No Fix 

However, there aren’t many consequences for agencies that don’t improve … except for cementing a spot on the High Risk List. 

Some, like the Defense Department, have been on the list for years – for such problem areas as weapons acquisitions and financial management (DOD hasn’t been successfully audited in decades). Medicare, Medicaid and the U.S. Postal Service also frequent the list. 

This year’s list has some new additions, including the Veterans Affairs hospital systems, which earned a spot after the agency was embroiled in scandal over backlogged and hidden wait lists last year. Overall, the 2015 High Risk list includes 32 programs – up from 30 last year. Here are five of the most troubled areas of the federal government:

IT Operations and Acquisitions
The government invests $80 billion annually in information technology, but so far its track record for undertaking massive IT efforts isn’t great. Take, for example, Health and Human Services Department’s HealthCare.gov, which struggled through an embarrassing launch that resulted in a costly repair effort. Now the project has ballooned to over $2 billion.

Related: 5 Most Egregious Examples of Government Waste This Year

There’s also the abandoned $1.1 billion electronic health record system that didn’t work. GAO blamed these tech flops on management and planning. “We have previously testified that the federal government has spent billions of dollars on failed IT investments. These and other failed IT projects often suffered from a lack of disciplined and effective management, such as project planning, requirements definition, and program oversight and governance,” GAO said in the report.

Veterans Affairs Health Care
After a year of scandal at the VA, where officials were accused of keeping secret wait lists and hiding poor treatment of veterans, it’s no surprise the $55.5 billion health care program serving more than 8.9 million veterans is considered “high risk.” GAO said it issued eight reports on the VA health system last year detailing delays, lax oversight and mismanagement.

IRS Tax Law Enforcement
Tax enforcement has made the High Risk List each year since 1990 – for good reason. The tax gap (the difference between taxes owed and taxes paid) is an astounding $385 billion. This year, GAO expanded the risk area to include the IRS’s efforts to combat tax fraud. Last year, the IRS paid out $5.8 billion in fraudulent tax refunds – though it prevented another $24.2 billion from being lost to identify fraud. Budget cuts, it says, could hamper its efforts to combat this.

Security of Federal Information Systems and Cyber Infrastructure
Cyber security has long been called a high risk area, though GAO expanded the threat in 2003 to include the protection of critical cyber infrastructure. This year, it’s added privacy protection as a concern.

Related: The Cyber Attack That Could Take Down the Government

While the government has taken steps to improve protecting cyber assets, technology advances have made it easier for virtually anyone to collect and process personal information – which poses “challenges to ensuring the privacy of such information,” said GAO. The growing number of high-profile breaches in the private sector – such as Sony’s – as well as more security incidents involving personal information at federal agencies has further raised the risk.

Pentagon Weapon Systems Acquisition
DOD’s weapon systems acquisition process has been on the GAO’s risk list since 1990 and continues to fall short on cost-effectiveness, schedule management and performance expectations, the report said. The pricey F-35 or Joint Strike Fighter, for example, estimated to cost more than $1.5 trillion, has already gone hundreds of billions over budget, is far behind schedule and has fallen short of expectations. It’s still never flown in combat.

Click here to see the GAO’S full High Risk List.

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