Hurricanes Katrina and Rita:

Federal Actions Could Enhance Preparedness of Certain State-Administered Federal Support Programs

GAO-07-219: Published: Feb 7, 2007. Publicly Released: Feb 7, 2007.

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Hurricanes Katrina and Rita displaced over 1 million people and affected some of the poorest areas of the country. Many of those affected by the hurricanes received federal assistance from the Old Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance (Social Security), Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Food Stamp, Unemployment Insurance (UI), and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) programs beforehand and others were newly eligible after the storms. Under the Comptroller General's authority, GAO assessed the (1) challenges the hurricanes created for programs to take applications and pay benefits, (2) factors that helped or hindered programs' efforts, and (3) areas that warrant further attention and actions being taken to improve programs' disaster response. To do this work, GAO reviewed policies, reports, and plans, and interviewed program officials at the federal level and in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas.

The mass destruction and displacement of people caused by the hurricanes created new challenges, including an unprecedented demand for services from these five programs. The demand for food stamps and UI benefits, and the disaster assistance they provide, rose sharply. New evacuee policies were created to provide food stamps and TANF assistance to evacuees nationwide. In contrast, Social Security and SSI had a significant increase for replacement benefits, but did not have a large increase in new applications. Disaster plans, flexible service delivery options, and access to contingency funding facilitated response, but not all programs had these elements in place. The federally administered Social Security and SSI programs had service delivery disaster plans in place to meet demand. However, such strategies were sometimes lacking for the state-administered Food Stamp, UI, and TANF programs. Flexible service delivery options such as 800 numbers and Internet application services and debit cards for issuing benefits expedited services. Last, access to contingency funding was key to facilitating disaster response. Gaps remain in preventing improper payments, easing access to services, and improving disaster planning for the state-administered programs, although new efforts hold potential for addressing these areas. Some program officials said they relaxed program rules to better ensure that those in need received aid, which may have increased the risk of improper payments. Program officials are taking actions to address improper payments, although more sharing of information across programs and states would be useful. Regarding access to services, disaster victims sometimes faced difficulties accessing aid from multiple programs, a long-standing problem exacerbated by a disaster. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has begun a promising effort--with links to state program administrators--to improve delivery of human services during disasters. This effort would be strengthened by additional actions, including collecting and disseminating information on service delivery and improper payments during disasters. Finally, to address planning gaps, federal officials are working with states to improve service delivery planning for the Food Stamp and UI programs, although HHS needs to work more systematically with states to assess the need for additional planning for state TANF programs.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: HHS agreed with this recommendation. Based on a proposal made by HHS, HHS/FEMA have proposed a human services case management pilot and have asked congress for funding for this pilot. Some pilots have been put in place and funding for additional efforts have been proposed. In FY10, HHS reported that Disaster Case Management (DCM) is no longer a pilot program. Through an interagency agreement with FEMA, ACF administers the DCM Program in presidentially-declared disasters when states request DCM services.

    Recommendation: In recognition of the importance of HHS' effort to improve the delivery of human services in future disasters, to strengthen its efforts the Secretary of HHS or his designee should develop specific information on options for implementing case management services across federal assistance programs during disasters, drawing on its human services expertise and in concert with other federal agencies as appropriate.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: HHS agreed with this recommendation and noted that it has already begun to do this through the work of its regional offices. It has taken steps to work with some of its regional offices to identify, collect, and disseminate promising practices, although it has not yet done so in regions beyond the Southeast/Gulf coast areas. HHS did not provide updates in FY 2009 or indicate whether its efforts have spread to additional regions beyond the Gulf coast area. In FY10, ACF reported that the Office of Family Assistance (OFA), both at the headquarters and regional office levels, works with the ACF Office of Human Services Emergency Preparedness and Response (OHSEPR) by providing information on the TANF program. This work is not limited to the southeast/Gulf coast areas. ACF responds to requests and coordinates with OHSEPR, as necessary. The agency has held meetings with states in several regions (5, 6, 7, 8) and is planning a meeting with the states in region 10 in which strategies and promising practices related to disaster planning will be discussed. In addition, OHSEPR conducts monthly videoconferences with regions to discuss issues and best practices.

    Recommendation: In recognition of the importance of HHS' effort to improve the delivery of human services in future disasters, to strengthen its efforts the Secretary of HHS or his designee should establish mechanisms for routinely collecting and disseminating information on promising practices for delivering human services during disasters. These mechanisms should help ensure that information can be collected from and provided to state and local officials directly involved in service delivery, as well as draw on the experiences of other federal programs. Key areas of focus should include disaster planning, service delivery, and eligibility determination and verification procedures that mitigate risks for making improper payments during an emergency situation.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: HHS agreed with this recommendation and noted that HHS was already fully participating in interagency efforts. Recently, its efforts have focused more on its own programs and it has moved ahead in some joint efforts as reflected in the following recommendation. In FY10, HHS reported that its Office of Human Services Emergency Preparedness and Response (OHSEPR) works closely with the Department of Homeland Security and coordinates with them, HHS, the State Department, and others in preparing for and responding to disasters (most recently Haiti).

    Recommendation: In recognition of the importance of HHS' effort to improve the delivery of human services in future disasters, to strengthen its efforts the Secretary of HHS or his designee should work with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and its interagency work group to determine the most efficient and effective way to conduct HHS' work related to improving the provision of human services during disasters without duplicating efforts.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Although HHS said it would not pursue a specific strategy for TANF disaster planning, it noted that the TANF program had been integrated into its overall disaster planning initiative. As of 2008, HHS has focused its overall disaster planning efforts on the gulf cost/southeast region. In FY10, ACF reported that it has been working through the Immediate Offices of the Regional Administrators (IORA) with all the states to assure that they have human service disaster plans in place. The IORA's provide reports to OHSEPR on a daily basis and OHSEPR takes the lead in sharing information with the principals in ACF. The Office of Family Assistance (OFA), both at the headquarters and regional office levels, works with the OHSEPR by providing information on the TANF program. In FY11, ACF reported that the Office of Family Assistance (OFA), both at headquarters and regional levels, has continued working with OHSEPR to provide information on the TANF program. The OFA Regional Offices hold annual meetings with their states and discuss challenges and best practices, which may include dealing with disasters. In addition, each state has developed a human services disaster plan, which includes the TANF program. These plans are generally reviewed on an annual basis and revised as necessary.

    Recommendation: In addition, to better ensure the disaster preparedness of the TANF program, the Secretary of HHS, as part of its overall efforts or separately as needed, should develop a systematic approach to work with all states to identify key elements of disaster planning needed for the TANF program, share this information among states, and take steps to understand the extent to which all states have these key planning elements in place, and to consider whether additional actions are warranted to better ensure disaster preparedness among state TANF programs.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

 

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