The federal government’s top watchdog is calling for better communication about the distribution of coronavirus relief funds, criticizing the Department of Health and Human Services for not having a clear timeline for remaining spending.

The Government Accountability Office called for improvements in its seventh, wide-ranging evaluation of the nation’s COVID-19 response, released Monday.

Skilled nursing providers have been clamoring for access to $24 billion in remaining Provider Relief Funds overseen by HHS — and have strongly hinted that they have been told a significant sum would be forthcoming — but the agency has yet to announce when the final round would open to applicants. 

As of May 31, 2021, Congress had appropriated to HHS approximately $484 billion in COVID-19 funds in six relief laws. The majority of HHS appropriations from the first five relief laws had been obligated and about half spent.

But of $160 billion appropriated in the sixth law, the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, the GAO found only about 47% had been obligated, and only about 2%, or $3 billion, had been spent.

As of May, the GAO had received and reviewed a total of 15 “spend plans” and related updates HHS sent to Congress, but the report noted the American Rescue Plan did not require such an outline. Still, the Office of Management and Budget has noted the “importance of spending transparency and regular reporting to help safeguard taxpayer dollars.”

“GAO found that the most current (HHS) spend plans generally do not include time frames for obligating the remaining funds, which is useful information for oversight and informing future funding decisions by Congress,” the report stated. “GAO recommends that HHS communicate information about, and facilitate oversight of, the department’s use of COVID-19 relief funds by providing projected time frames for its planned spending.”