Press Releases

WASHINGTON – U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine, a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, joined Senators Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) in calling on the Biden Administration to swiftly enact and continue to strengthen a proposed rule to limit the availability of short-term limited duration insurance (STLDI) plans, which are commonly referred to as “junk plans.” Junk plans provide inadequate coverage and deny coverage to people with pre-existing conditions.

In July, following pressure from Sens. Warner, Kaine, and their colleagues, the Biden Administration released new draft regulations to roll back a 2018 Trump Administration effort that made junk plans more widely available to consumers. Since 2018, these plans have continued to proliferate. However, they are not required to adhere to important standards, including protections for people with pre-existing conditions and coverage for essential health benefits like maternity care or mental health services. Once finalized, the Biden Administration’s rule will restore a 90-day limit on the use of junk plans, instead of the current four-year maximum, so they can only be used on a temporary basis as intended, such as when people are transitioning from one plan to another.

In a letter to Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, Department of Labor Acting Secretary Julie Su, and Department of Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, the senators urged the Biden Administration to swiftly enact the proposed rule, continue to strengthen protections, and increase transparency on junk plans to protect Americans from this inadequate coverage. 

“We applaud your efforts to protect Americans who may have been duped into these junk plans, and urge the Biden Administration to swiftly finalize the rule and bolster our collective efforts to expand access to affordable, comprehensive health coverage,” wrote the senators. “With this new proposal, the Biden Administration is taking action to better protect consumers and promote access to affordable, comprehensive health insurance.”

In addition to expressing support for the Biden Administration’s proposed rule, the senators urged administration leaders to take further measures to protect consumers as they finalize the new rule on STLDI plans, including cracking down on the practice of “stacking,” or repeatedly enrolling the same consumer in junk plans across different issuers. The senators also called on the Biden Administration to bring greater transparency to junk plans through disclosure and reporting requirements and to consider additional protections for individuals shopping for coverage during the annual Open Enrollment period, which is set to begin November 1.

“For too long, junk plans were able to proliferate unchecked, resulting in increased exposure to financial harm for consumers. By finally limiting the duration of these plans and providing better protections for consumers, we are helping ensure that when families spend their hard-earned dollars on health insurance, they get the high-quality coverage they deserve,” concluded the senators.

Joining Sens. Warner, Kaine, Baldwin, Sanders, and Wyden in signing the letter were Senators Michael Bennet (D-CO), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Bob Casey (D-PA), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NM), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Maggie Hassan (D-NH), John Hickenlooper (D-CO), Ben Ray Luján (D-NM), Ed Markey (D-MA), Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Christopher Murphy (D-CT), Alex Padilla (D-CA), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Tina Smith (D-MN), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Peter Welch (D-VT).

A full version of the letter is available here and below.

Dear Secretaries Becerra, Su, and Yellen:

We write in support of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the Department of Labor, and the Department of the Treasury’s (collectively, the Departments’) long-awaited proposal to address short-term limited duration insurance (STLDI) plans. In 2018, the previous administration sought to sabotage the Affordable Care Act (ACA) by expanding access to STLDI plans that can deny coverage to people with preexisting conditions and fail to provide adequate health care coverage when Americans need it most. While STLDI plans have their purpose, such plans provide junk coverage when compared to high-quality, comprehensive coverage. We applaud your efforts to protect Americans who may have been duped into these junk plans, and urge the Biden Administration to swiftly finalize the rule and bolster our collective efforts to expand access to affordable, comprehensive health coverage.

In 2018, regulations issued by the previous administration rewrote the definition of STDLI coverage, allowing these plans to expand their term of coverage from three months to 364 days with the option to renew for up to three years. Unlike marketplace plans, STLDI plans are not required to comply with consumer protections that limit out-of-pocket costs or coverage of essential health benefits, including mental health services, treatment for substance-use disorder, prescription drugs, and maternity care. Furthermore, these plans engage in discriminatory practices, such as retroactive coverage rescissions, medical underwriting, and lifetime and annual caps, which were commonplace before the ACA. Since 2018, many consumers shopping for coverage may not have understood that they were buying a plan that puts them at risk for pre-existing conditions and coverage gaps.

With this new proposal, the Biden Administration is taking action to better protect consumers and promote access to affordable, comprehensive health insurance. We appreciate the Department’s efforts to hold true to a definition of “short-term” that is just that – short term. STLDI policies were originally intended to temporarily fill gaps in coverage while people transition between jobs or when students were required to disenroll from student health coverage over the summer months. As such, we believe these plans should be strictly limited to three months without the option for extensions.

We also strongly support the proposal to prevent insurance companies or brokers from repeatedly enrolling the same consumer in STLDI coverage, a practice known as “stacking,” and request that the Administration do more to prohibit stacking of STLDI plans across different issuers. In addition, as we continue to ensure that Americans have access to affordable coverage, it is critically important for Congress, state regulators, researchers, stakeholders, and federal departments to understand the true impact of the junk insurance market on the ACA marketplaces and other forms of high-quality coverage. As a part of this rulemaking, we strongly urge the agencies to implement policies that would bring greater transparency to these products including disclosure and reporting requirements for intermediary entities such as brokers, associations, and lead generators.

Finally, we urge the Administration to consider additional protections for individuals who may be shopping for coverage during the ACA’s annual Open Enrollment (OE) period.

Fraudsters, always looking for opportunities to take advantage of consumers, are enrolling individuals into plans without their consent, and numerous studies have documented the use of deceptive and misleading marketing to lure consumers into junk plans. We urge the Departments to proactively work with state insurance commissioners to address misleading marketing practices. High-quality insurance coverage is now more affordable than ever before thanks to the enhanced premium tax credits passed as part of the American Rescue Plan Act and the Inflation Reduction Act, as well as the Administration’s efforts to fix the “family glitch” which eliminated the subsidy cliff that impacted over five million Americans. It is our responsibility to ensure that the OE period, which is set to begin on November 1, is as successful as possible in promoting access to high-quality, affordable coverage.

For too long, junk plans were able to proliferate unchecked, resulting in increased exposure to financial harm for consumers. By finally limiting the duration of these plans and providing better protections for consumers, we are helping ensure that when families spend their hard-earned dollars on health insurance, they get the high-quality coverage they deserve.

Sincerely,

 

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WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-VA), Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, wrote to President Biden, urging the Administration to boost the federal government’s tech workforce in order to address the challenges of rapidly advancing AI, building on previous government initiatives to draw in engineers, product managers, and other digital policy experts to revamp the government’s approach to technology. In his letter, Sen. Warner stressed the need for a similar arrangement specifically targeting AI.

“It is clear to me that we will not be able to meet the need in this rapidly advancing field without a diverse and representative group of talented minds,” Sen. Warner wrote. “These individuals should possess technical knowledge, but also a keen understanding of the social impact of AI.”

He continued, “Your administration has taken a number of practical and important steps to advance the safe deployment of AI technologies. To supplement these efforts, I urge you to use your existing authority to bring the best and brightest minds to the table to help our nation grapple with the wide-ranging impact that AI will have on our society. I look forward to working with you on this endeavor.”

Sen. Warner, a former tech entrepreneur, has been a leading voice in the Senate calling for increased efforts into appropriately regulating and addressing the threats of AI, while still harnessing its full potential. Sen. Warner engaged directly with AI companies to push for responsible development and deployment. Last month, he sent a series of letters to major AI companies urging them to take additional action to promote safety and prevent malicious misuse of their products. In April, Sen. Warner  called on AI CEOs to develop practices that would ensure that their products and systems are secure. In July, he also pushed on the Biden administration to keep working with AI companies to expand the scope of the voluntary commitments.

Additionally, Sen. Warner wrote to Google last month to raise concerns about their testing of new AI technology in medical settings. Separately, he urged the CEOs of several AI companies to address a concerning report that generative chatbots were producing instructions on how to exacerbate an eating disorder.

Text of the letter can be found here and below.

Dear President Biden,

I write today regarding the need to bolster our Federal workforce and build capacity within the government to address artificial intelligence (AI). Already, excellent work related to AI is happening across the Federal government – from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to the National Institutes of Health – but given the work that needs to be done, we undoubtedly need more expertise and more capacity. The rapid advancements in AI technologies underscores the need to build a robust knowledge base within the Federal government to grapple with AI applications across various sectors of our economy and society. Given the speed of innovation in this space, I urge you to use the powers of your office to launch a new initiative focused on bringing the best and brightest minds into government service to meet the challenges and harness the benefits of AI.

In recent years, we have seen successful examples of innovative initiatives that bring talented individuals together within the Federal government to serve the public and solve some of our government’s most pressing needs. For example, 18F has brought together a team of designers, software engineers, strategists, and product managers to collaborate with federal agencies in order to improve and modernize government technology. Similarly, the U.S. Digital Service (USDS) has brought together engineers, product managers, and digital policy experts to be paired with leading civil servants in order to impact our government’s approach to technology and address some of the most critical government services. What these initiatives have in common – and what I believe we must focus on in a similar initiative for AI – is bringing together a group of bright minds, with diverse backgrounds and experiences, to lend their expertise to the federal government on issues of national importance.

It is clear to me that we will not be able to meet the need in this rapidly advancing field without a diverse and representative group of talented minds. These individuals should possess technical knowledge but also a keen understanding of the social impact of AI. Furthermore, a dedicated group of individuals focused solely on AI can help the federal government think through the opportunities to harness AI technologies to meet federal objectives while also working collaboratively with agencies to guard against AI-generated risks within their purview.

Your Administration has taken a number of practical and important steps to advance the safe deployment of AI technologies. To supplement these efforts, I urge you to use your existing authority to bring the best and brightest minds to the table to help our nation grapple with the wide-ranging impact that AI will have on our society. I look forward to working with you on this endeavor.

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WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner (D-VA) and John Thune (R-SD) led a group of colleagues in a letter to Anne Milgram, Administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), expressing support for the agency’s new engagement on a potential special registration for telehealth but sharing serious concerns over the agency’s proposed rules on the future of prescribing controlled substances via telehealth. Despite efforts by Sen. Warner to ensure continued access to telehealth services following the end of the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency (PHE), the DEA’s rules as proposed would drastically affect patient care.

Joining Sens. Warner and Thune in this letter are U.S. Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), and Dan Sullivan (R-AK).

At the start of the pandemic, the DEA acted swiftly to take advantage of exceptions detailed in the Ryan Haight Online Pharmacy Consumer Protection Act that allowed the agency to waive in-person requirements for prescribing controlled substances in the case of a Public Health Emergency (PHE). With the expiration of the COVID-19 PHE earlier this year, however, the DEA announced a proposed rule detailing their plans for prescribing these medications via telehealth going forward that would limit the ability of doctors to prescribe controlled substances without an in-person visit and place unnecessary requirements on care providers. The proposed rule would only allow a 30-day supply of a schedule III-V non-narcotic medication prior to an in-person medical evaluation, and would not permit any initial supply for schedule II or schedule III-V narcotic medication.

The senators wrote, “Although we appreciate the limited flexibilities proposed by the rule, they are insufficient to meet the health care needs of our constituents and the needs of the providers who care for them. We support the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) extending the full set of telehealth flexibilities through November 2023 and are encouraged by the upcoming public listening sessions on the proposed regulations. We urge the DEA to consider feedback from health care stakeholders and apply the lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure patients maintain access to care through telehealth, while still minimizing diversion and fraud.”

Highlighting the difficulty patients have scheduling in-person appointments, the senators continued, “We have concerns about our constituents’ ability to obtain in-person appointments within 30 days of starting a new medication, and the potential consequences to their health of starting a new medication and abruptly ending it should they not be able to obtain such an appointment. It takes on average 26 days to schedule a new patient appointment with a health care provider. Therefore, a 30-day supply could result in patients going without their medication while they wait for an in-person appointment or will turn to higher-acuity and higher-cost settings of in-person care to meet this deadline, such as emergency departments.” 

The senators also called attention to a rule Congress created as part of the SUPPORT for Patients and Communities Act that requires the DEA create a registration for telemedicine practitioners who would not be subject to mandatory in-person medical evaluations. The goal of this special registration is to allow medical evaluations over telehealth more broadly, which the senators state this DEA rule does not accomplish.

Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, tremendous progress was made to ensure that patients could receive care without interruption. Reinstating these hard limits on telehealth would be taking a step backwards, and have serious impacts on the care options for thousands of patients. Sen. Warner has consistently led efforts to expand telehealth accessibility, introducing legislation to expand telehealth services and repeatedly calling on congressional leadership to extend telehealth services after the end of the pandemic.

 

A copy of the letter is available here and text is below:

 

Dear Administrator Milgram:

 

On behalf of our constituent patients, health care providers, and pharmacists, we’re writing to share strong concerns with the notice of proposed rulemaking on the future of controlled substances prescribing over telehealth. Although we appreciate the limited flexibilities proposed by the rule, they are insufficient to meet the health care needs of our constituents and the needs of the providers who care for them. We support the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) extending the full set of telehealth flexibilities through November 2023 and are encouraged by the upcoming public listening sessions on the proposed regulations. We urge the DEA to consider feedback from health care stakeholders and apply the lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure patients maintain access to care through telehealth, while still minimizing diversion and fraud.

 

Proposed Rule

As you know, the Ryan Haight Online Pharmacy Consumer Protection Act of 2008 (“Ryan Haight Act”) offered seven exceptions to the in-person medical evaluation requirement when providers are engaged in the “practice of telemedicine;” a public health emergency is one such exception, and we’re grateful the DEA moved swiftly to utilize that exception during the COVID-19 pandemic.

 

However, we are concerned that the proposed rule undermines the gains made during the PHE that saw expanded access to critical health care services through telehealth

 

Initial supply: Prior to an in-person medical evaluation, the proposed rule permits a DEA-registered prescriber to provide an initial 30-day supply of a controlled substance for non-narcotic schedule III-V medications. We have concerns about our constituents’ ability to obtain in-person appointments within 30 days of starting a new medication, and the potential consequences to their health of starting a new medication and abruptly ending it should they not be able to obtain such an appointment. It takes on average 26 days to schedule a new patient appointment with a health care provider. Therefore, a 30-day supply could result in patients going without their medication while they wait for an in-person appointment or will turn to higher-acuity and higher-cost settings of in-person care to meet this deadline, such as emergency departments.

 

Despite the 180-day grace period after the end of the PHE, new and existing patients will be seeking in-person appointments simultaneously in a health care system that is already burdened by a shortage of health care providers. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 163 million Americans live in Mental Health Care Health Professional Shortage Areas.  Approximately 8,200 additional psychiatrists would be needed nationwide just to remove this shortage designation.  Nationwide averages also obscure the variation among states and territories; for example, Arizona has only 8.5% of its psychiatric health care needs met and would need 227 psychiatrists to meet 100% of these needs.  And beyond mental health care, 100 million Americans live in Primary Care Health Professional Shortage Areas, with more than 17,000 primary care providers needed at a minimum to remove the designation. 

 

Medical societies representing health care providers and their patients nationwide have encouraged a window of longer than 30 days for an initial prescription in order to provide enough time to obtain an appointment: the American Medical Association (AMA) and the American Psychiatric Association recommend 180 days, with the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) urging no less a 90-day maximum when the provider believes it is appropriate. In addition, the AMA and the AAMC recommend that existing patients have one year to fulfill the in-person appointment requirement.

 

Provider safety: The proposed rule requires the prescribing provider to report their physical address at the time of the telemedicine appointment. Health care providers have shared they sometimes do telemedicine appointments from their home and have safety and privacy concerns with their home address being on the prescription. We urge you to allow providers to use the business address of their DEA registration.

 

Referrals:

  • Referring providers: The proposed rule requires that an in-person medical evaluation be performed by a DEA-registered provider before a referral to another DEA-registered provider who would be permitted to prescribe a controlled substance over telehealth. We are concerned that individuals without adequate in-person access to a DEA-registered provider will see their health care treatment options limited should they be referred to a specialist for a telehealth appointment, or instead a second in-person medical evaluation would be required with a DEA-registered provider prior to seeing a specialist, which would increase costs to the patient and the health care system as a whole. We urge you to work with health care providers to ensure patients do not encounter any truly unnecessary barriers to care.  
  • Prescribing practitioner: The proposed rule requires a referring provider to specifically include the name and National Provider Identifier (NPI) of the prescribing practitioner to which the referring prescriber is referring the patient. In practice, patients are often referred to a group practice where they see whichever specialist has a first available appointment. Or, referrals may not have a provider indicated at all, as the patient often has to explore insurance network coverage and new patient availability. This requirement may prevent patients from receiving the legitimate health care services they need.

 

Recordkeeping: Finally, we have heard widespread concerns about additional recordkeeping and other administrative burdens required from providers and pharmacies. This additional administrative burden will strain an already exhausted workforce could also deter providers from being able to provide this care. Stakeholders have shared that existing recordkeeping requirements should be sufficient for the purpose of DEA being able to combat diversion and fraud, and we encourage you to work with providers on the least burdensome path forward.

 

Special Registration

In addition to the PHE exception to the Ryan Haight Act discussed above, Congress also created a “special registration” exception, not as an option for DEA to utilize but a requirement to do so most recently in the SUPPORT for Patients and Communities Act (“SUPPORT Act”). We do not believe this NPRM fulfills DEA’s obligation to create a special registration.

 

Congress envisioned this special registration to allow certain health care providers to be cleared and registered to use their clinical judgment when a medical examination can be done over telehealth for the purposes of a controlled substances prescription. DEA envisioned this to be the case, as well: in the preamble to Ryan Haight Act implementation regulations, DEA wrote:

 

“Special registration for telemedicine—a practitioner who is engaged in the practice of telemedicine within the meaning of the Act is not subject to the mandatory in-person medical evaluation requirement of 21 U.S.C. 829(e) (although such practitioner remains subject to the requirement that all prescriptions for controlled substances be issued for a legitimate medical purpose.”

 

Although we appreciate DEA not requiring a special registration for the initial prescriptions currently proposed, we are concerned that the proposed rule does not include the special registration directed to be created by Congress and even envisioned by the DEA. However, we are pleased to see DEA recently indicate further consideration of a special registration process that would allow clinicians to prescribe a controlled substance via telemedicine without an in-person visit. We appreciate the continuation of the comment process via public listening sessions, and encourage the DEA to review and incorporate stakeholders’ feedback in future rulemaking related to telemedicine prescribing.

 

In addition to allowing qualified health care providers to determine when a medical evaluation over telehealth is appropriate, a special registration would also provide a framework to evaluate the appropriateness of certain prescribers having the ability to prescribe over telehealth medications not covered by the post-COVID-19 proposed rule, namely Schedule II medications and Schedule III-V narcotic medications.

 

Health care providers across the board continue to ask for a special registration process that would provide a pathway for certain providers to provide more care involving controlled substances over telehealth than the proposed rule allows, and we implore DEA to follow its statutory requirements under the Ryan Haight Act and the SUPPORT Act and do just that.

 

Thank you for your consideration of these concerns, and we look forward to continuing to work with you on these important issues.

                       

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WASHINGTON – Ahead of a Tuesday oversight hearing in the Senate Banking Committee with Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) Chairman Gary Gensler, U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner (D-VA) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH) reintroduced legislation to require publicly traded companies to disclose information regarding workforce management metrics, including investments made in skills training, workforce safety, and employee retention.

“Workers are the most valuable resource a company can have, but without a clear set of standards for reporting, the investment that public companies make in their personnel are next-to-impossible to track,” said Sen. Warner. “This legislation will help provide a clearer picture of how public companies are managing, supporting, and investing in their workers – factors that significantly influence a company’s ability to innovate and compete.”

“Big Tech and other corporations use subcontracting and outsourcing to hide their total number of workers. The result is that too many workers are invisible under current disclosure requirements,” said Sen. Brown. “The Workforce Investment Disclosure Act will finally shed some sunlight on how companies outsource and subcontract their workers and allow the public to scrutinize what these companies are doing to invest in their workers.”

Since the start of his tenure in 2021, Chair Gensler has stated disclosure of these workforce metrics would be a priority of his agenda, but a rule making this a requirement has yet to be proposed. The Workforce Investment Disclosure Act would require public companies disclose basic human capital metrics, which have an increasingly high value across industries in our 21st century economy. These metrics include workforce turnover rates, skills and development training, workforce health and safety, workforce engagement, and compensation statistics.

Specifically, the legislation would build on existing disclosure requirements by requiring companies to disclose:

  • Demographic information;
  • Data on temporary and contract workers;
  • Employee turnover rate;
  • Employee skills and capabilities;
  • Workforce health, safety, and well-being, including findings of harassment or discrimination; and
  • Employee compensation, benefits, and incentives.

Sen. Warner, a former entrepreneur and venture capitalist, has long stressed the importance of updating human capital disclosure requirements to reflect the priorities of modern companies. First introducing the Workforce Investment Disclosure Act in 2020, Sens. Warner and Brown have also urged the SEC to implement improvements to their human capital disclosure rules including for part-time employees.

Full text of the bill is available here

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WASHINGTON – U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-VA), Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, today urged several artificial intelligence (AI) companies to take additional action to promote safety and prevent malicious misuse of their products. In a series of letters, Sen. Warner applauded certain companies for publicly joining voluntary commitments proposed by the Biden administration, but encouraged them to broaden their efforts, and called on companies that have not taken this public step to commit to making their products more secure.

As AI is rolled out more broadly, researchers have repeatedly demonstrated a number of concerning, exploitable weaknesses in prominent products, including abilities to generate credible-seeming misinformation, develop malware, and craft sophisticated phishing techniques. In July, the Biden administration announced that several AI companies had agreed to a series of voluntary commitments that would promote greater security and transparency. However, the commitments were not fully comprehensive in scope or in participation, with many companies not publicly participating and several exploitable aspects of the technology left untouched by the commitments.

In a series of letters sent today, Sen. Warner pushed directly on companies that did not participate, including Apple, Midjourney, Mistral AI, Databricks, Scale AI, and Stability AI, requesting a response detailing the steps they plan to take to increase the security of their products and prioritize transparency. Sen. Warner additionally sent letters to companies that were involved in the Biden administration’s commitments, including Amazon, Anthropic, Google, Inflection AI, Meta, Microsoft, and OpenAI, asking that they extend commitments to less capable models and also develop consumer-facing commitments – such as development and monitoring practices – to prevent the most serious forms of misuse. 

“While representing an important improvement upon the status quo, the voluntary commitments announced in July can be bolstered in key ways through additional commitments,” Sen. Warner wrote.

Sen. Warner also called specific attention to the urgent need for all AI companies to make additional commitments to safeguard against a few highly sensitive potential misuses, including non-consensual intimate image generation (including child sexual abuse material), social-scoring, real-time facial recognition, and proliferation activity in the context of malicious cyber activity or the production of biological or chemical agents.

The letters follow up on Sen. Warner’s previous efforts to engage directly with AI companies to push for responsible development and deployment. In April, Sen. Warner directly called on AI CEOs to develop practices that would ensure that their products and systems are secure. In July, he also pushed on the Biden administration to keep working with AI companies to expand the scope of the voluntary commitments.

Additionally, Sen. Warner wrote to Google last week to raise concerns about their testing of new AI technology in real medical settings. Separately, he urged the CEOs of several AI companies to address a concerning report that generative chatbots were producing instructions on how to exacerbate an eating disorder. Additionally, he has introduced several pieces of legislation aimed at making tech safer and more humane, including the RESTRICT Act, which would comprehensively address the ongoing threat posed by technology from foreign adversaries; the SAFE TECH Act, which would reform Section 230 and allow social media companies to be held accountable for enabling cyber-stalking, online harassment, and discrimination on social media platforms; and the Honest Ads Act, which would require online political advertisements to adhere to the same disclaimer requirements as TV, radio, and print ads.

Copies of each of the letters can be found here.

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WASHINGTON – U.S. Sen. Mark Warner joined Sens. Ben Ray Luján (D-NM), Edward Markey (D-MA), and others to urge the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to enforce its existing regulations regarding consent for receiving telemarketing calls, also known as robocalls. The letter also asks the FCC to issue guidance along the lines of the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) recent Business Guidance restating the FCC’s long-held requirements for these unwanted telemarketing calls. By issuing guidance similar to the FTC’s, the FCC will assist telemarketers and sellers in complying with these requirements. 

“While the consideration of new regulations may be appropriate in some instances, we believe that the FCC’s current regulations already prohibit many of the activities that lead to the proliferation of unwanted telemarketing calls,” wrote the Senators. “Both the regulations issued in 2003 delineating the rules for telemarketers to obtain consent for calls to lines subscribed to the Do Not Call Registry, and those issued in 2012 governing consent to receive telemarketing calls made with an artificial or prerecorded voice or an automated telephone dialing system, clearly set out the types of protections intended by Congress to eliminate unwanted telemarketing calls.”

The Senators concluded, “As Congress instructed the FCC ‘to maximize consistency with the rule promulgated by the Federal Trade Commission’ relating to the implementation of the Do-Not-Call Registry, we respectfully urge the FCC to issue a guidance along the lines of the FTC’s recent Business Guidance restating its long-held requirements for these unwanted telemarketing calls. As inconsistent rules governing the same activity would be problematic, by issuing guidance similar to the FTC’s, the FCC will assist telemarketers and sellers in complying with these requirements.”

Sen. Warner, a former cell phone entrepreneur, has been active in fighting robocalls for many years. He sponsored the Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence (TRACED) Act to give regulators – including the FCC – more time to find scammers, increase civil forfeiture penalties, require service providers to adopt call authentication and blocking, and bring relevant federal agencies and state attorneys general together to address impediments to criminal prosecution of robocallers. Former President Trump signed the TRACED Act into law in 2019. In July, he applauded new efforts from the FTC to crack down on spam calls.

In addition to Sens. Warner, Lujan, and Markey, the letter is signed by U.S. Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Peter Welch (D-VT), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Angus King (I-ME), Richard Durbin (D-IL), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Ron Wyden (D-OR), and Gary Peters (D-MI). This letter is endorsed by Appleseed, Consumer Action, Consumer Federation of America, Electronic Privacy Information Center, National Association of State Utility Consumer Advocates, National Consumers League, Public Citizen, Public Knowledge, and U.S. PIRG.

Full text of the letter is available here and below.

Dear Chairwoman Rosenworcel:

We are heartened that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is considering ways to curtail the number of unwanted telemarketing calls—currently over 1.25 billion every month—in a proceeding pending under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA). As the Commission recognizes, the continued onslaught of illegal calls threatens the trustworthiness and usefulness of our nation’s telephone system.

While the consideration of new regulations may be appropriate in some instances, we believe that the FCC’s current regulations already prohibit many of the activities that lead to the proliferation of unwanted telemarketing calls. Both the regulations issued in 2003 delineating the rules for telemarketers to obtain consent for calls to lines subscribed to the Do Not Call Registry, and those issued in 2012 governing consent to receive telemarketing calls made with an artificial or prerecorded voice or an automated telephone dialing system, clearly set out the types of protections intended by Congress to eliminate unwanted telemarketing calls. Both of these regulations allow robocalls calls only if the call recipients sign a written agreement relating to calls from a single seller. 

Additionally, the FCC’s 2003 regulation for telemarketing calls to lines registered on the Do Not Call Registry requires that the “signed, written agreement” must be “between the consumer and the seller.” This requirement provides two protections. First, it means that the seller, not a telemarketer or a lead generator, or anyone other than the seller, or the agent of the seller, must be party to the agreement with the consumer. Second, it limits the calls that are covered by the agreement to calls related only to the seller that was the party to the agreement. Enforcement of the current limitations applicable to agreements providing consent for telemarketing calls under the existing regulations would eliminate the sale and trading of these consents which have led to the proliferation of unwanted telemarketing robocalls.

Moreover, as many of these agreements are entered into online, current federal law requires specific protections for consumers receiving writings through electronic records in the Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act (the E-Sign Act). One example of these protections in the E-Sign Act is the prohibition of oral communication as a substitute for a writing. Although telemarketers routinely ignore the requirements of the E-Sign Act, the legislation’s mandate for E-Sign consent before writings can be provided in electronic records in 15 U.S.C. § 7001(c) is fully applicable.

Finally, as Congress instructed the FCC “to maximize consistency with the rule promulgated by the Federal Trade Commission” relating to the implementation of the Do-Not-Call Registry, we respectfully urge the FCC to issue a guidance along the lines of the FTC’s recent Business Guidance restating its long-held requirements for these unwanted telemarketing calls. As inconsistent rules governing the same activity would be problematic, by issuing guidance similar to the FTC’s, the FCC will assist telemarketers and sellers in complying with these requirements. This guidance should also emphasize that the obligations imposed by the E-Sign Act apply when these agreements are entered into online.

We appreciate your work to curb unwanted and illegal robocalls. Issuing guidance that emphasizes the meaningful requirements of current regulations as well as the requirements of the federal E-Sign Act will go a long way to reduce the number of unwanted robocalls. Thank you for your consideration of this request.

 
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WASHINGTON – U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-VA), Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, today urged Google CEO Sundar Pichai to provide more clarity into his company’s deployment of Med-PaLM 2, an artificial intelligence (AI) chatbot currently being tested in health care settings. In a letter, Sen. Warner expressed concerns about reports of inaccuracies in the technology, and called on Google to increase transparency, protect patient privacy, and ensure ethical guardrails.

In April, Google began testing Med-PaLM2 with customers, including the Mayo Clinic. Med-PaLM 2 can answer medical questions, summarize documents, and organize health data. While the technology has shown some promising results, there are also concerning reports of repeated inaccuracies and of Google’s own senior researchers expressing reservations about the readiness of the technology. Additionally, much remains unknown about where Med-PaLM 2 is being tested, what data sources it learns from, to what extent patients are aware of and can object to the use of AI in their treatment, and what steps Google has taken to protect against bias.

“While artificial intelligence (AI) undoubtedly holds tremendous potential to improve patient care and health outcomes, I worry that premature deployment of unproven technology could lead to the erosion of trust in our medical professionals and institutions, the exacerbation of existing racial disparities in health outcomes, and an increased risk of diagnostic and care-delivery errors,” Sen. Warner wrote. 

The letter raises concerns over AI companies prioritizing the race to establish market share over patient well-being. Sen. Warner also emphasizes his previous efforts to raise the alarm about Google skirting health privacy as it trained diagnostic models on sensitive health data without patients’ knowledge or consent.

“It is clear more work is needed to improve this technology as well as to ensure the health care community develops appropriate standards governing the deployment and use of AI,” Sen. Warner continued.

The letter poses a broad range of questions for Google to answer, requesting more transparency into exactly how Med-PaLM 2 is being rolled out, what data sources Med-PaLM 2 learns from, how much information and agency patients have over how AI is involved in their care, and more.

Sen. Warner, a former tech entrepreneur, has been a vocal advocate for Big Tech accountability and a stronger national posture against cyberattacks and misinformation online. In April, Sen. Warner directly expressed concerns to several AI CEOs – including Sundar Pichai – about the potential risks posed by AI, and called on companies to ensure that their products and systems are secure. Last month, he called on the Biden administration to work with AI companies to develop additional guardrails around the responsible deployment of AI. He has also introduced several pieces of legislation aimed at making tech more secure, including the RESTRICT Act, which would comprehensively address the ongoing threat posed by technology from foreign adversaries; the SAFE TECH Act, which would reform Section 230 and allow social media companies to be held accountable for enabling cyber-stalking, online harassment, and discrimination on social media platforms; and the Honest Ads Act, which would require online political advertisements to adhere to the same disclaimer requirements as TV, radio, and print ads.

A copy of the letter can be found here are below. 

Dear Mr. Pichai,

I write to express my concern regarding reports that Google began providing Med-PaLM 2 to hospitals to test early this year. While artificial intelligence (AI) undoubtedly holds tremendous potential to improve patient care and health outcomes, I worry that premature deployment of unproven technology could lead to the erosion of trust in our medical professionals and institutions, the exacerbation of existing racial disparities in health outcomes, and an increased risk of diagnostic and care-delivery errors.

Over the past year, large technology companies, including Google, have been rushing to develop and deploy AI models and capture market share as the technology has received increased attention following OpenAI’s launch of ChatGPT. Numerous media outlets have reported that companies like Google and Microsoft have been willing to take bigger risks and release more nascent technology in an effort to gain a first mover advantage. In 2019, I raised concerns that Google was skirting health privacy laws through secretive partnerships with leading hospital systems, under which it trained diagnostic models on sensitive health data without patients’ knowledge or consent. This race to establish market share is readily apparent and especially concerning in the health care industry, given the life-and-death consequences of mistakes in the clinical setting, declines of trust in health care institutions in recent years, and the sensitivity of health information. One need look no further than AI pioneer Joseph Weizenbaum’s experiments involving chatbots in psychotherapy to see how users can put premature faith in even basic AI solutions.

According to Google, Med-PaLM 2 can answer medical questions, summarize documents, and organize health data. While AI models have previously been used in medical settings, the use of generative AI tools presents complex new questions and risks. According to the Wall Street Journal, a senior research director at Google who worked on Med-PaLM 2 said, “I don’t feel that this kind of technology is yet at a place where I would want it in my family’s healthcare journey.” Indeed, Google’s own research, released in May, showed that Med-PaLM 2’s answers contained more inaccurate or irrelevant information than answers provided by physicians. It is clear more work is needed to improve this technology as well as to ensure the health care community develops appropriate standards governing the deployment and use of AI

Given these serious concerns and the fact that VHC Health, based in Arlington, Virginia, is a member of the Mayo Clinic Care Network, I request that you provide answers to the following questions. 

  1. Researchers have found large language models to display a phenomenon described as “sycophany,” wherein the model generates responses that confirm or cater to a user’s (tacit or explicit) preferred answers, which could produce risks of misdiagnosis in the medical context. Have you tested Med-PaLM 2 for this failure mode?
  2. Large language models frequently demonstrate the tendency to memorize contents of their training data, which can risk patient privacy in the context of models trained on sensitive health information. How has Google evaluated Med-PaLM 2 for this risk and what steps has Google taken to mitigate inadvertent privacy leaks of sensitive health information?
  3. What documentation did Google provide hospitals, such as Mayo Clinic, about Med-PaLM 2? Did it share model or system cards, datasheets, data-statements, and/or test and evaluation results?
  4. Google’s own research acknowledges that its clinical models reflect scientific knowledge only as of the time the model is trained, necessitating “continual learning.” What is the frequency with which Google fully or partially re-trains Med-PaLM 2? Does Google ensure that licensees use only the most up-to-date model version?
  5. Google has not publicly provided documentation on Med-PaLM 2, including refraining from disclosing the contents of the model’s training data. Does Med-PaLM 2’s training corpus include protected health information?
  6. Does Google ensure that patients are informed when Med-PaLM 2, or other AI models offered or licensed by, are used in their care by health care licensees? If so, how is the disclosure presented? Is it part of a longer disclosure or more clearly presented?
  7. Do patients have the option to opt-out of having AI used to facilitate their care? If so, how is this option communicated to patients?
  8. Does Google retain prompt information from health care licensees, including protected health information contained therein? Please list each purpose Google has for retaining that information.
  9. What license terms exist in any product license to use Med-PaLM 2 to protect patients, ensure ethical guardrails, and prevent misuse or inappropriate use of Med-PaLM 2? How does Google ensure compliance with those terms in the post-deployment context? 
  10. How many hospitals is Med-PaLM 2 currently being used at? Please provide a list of all hospitals and health care systems Google has licensed or otherwise shared Med-Palm 2 with.
  11. Does Google use protected health information from hospitals using Med-PaLM 2 to retrain or finetune Med-PaLM 2 or any other models? If so, does Google require that hospitals inform patients that their protected health information may be used in this manner?
  12. In Google’s own research publication announcing Med-PaLM 2, researchers cautioned about the need to adopt “guardrails to mitigate against over-reliance on the output of a medical assistant.” What guardrails has Google adopted to mitigate over-reliance on the output of Med-PaLM 2 as well as when it particularly should and should not be used? What guardrails has Google incorporated through product license terms to prevent over-reliance on the output?

 

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WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner (D-VA) and John Thune (R-SD) urged the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to more effectively promote educational assistance programs that would help alleviate the burden of student loan payments. Specifically, the senators are focused on efforts to make employers and employees aware of their Employer Participation in Repayment Act, which allows employers to contribute up to $5,250 tax-free to employees’ student loans annually through 2025.

“This provision within section 127 is a win-win for employers and employees, as it provides a pathway towards student loan debt relief for borrowers and provides employers with another option to recruit and retain talent necessary to grow their businesses,” the senators wrote.

In April of this year, Sen. Warner questioned IRS Commissioner Danny Werfel on the organization’s outreach efforts regarding benefits available to borrowers. During the exchange, Commissioner Werfel committed to devoting significant efforts to making taxpayers aware of these benefits. Since then however, little progress has been made to make employers and employees aware of these programs, which would greatly reduce stress of monthly payments for borrowers and help employees retain qualified candidates.  

“During your testimony before the Senate Finance Committee on April 19, 2023, you stated that outreach on section 127, including ensuring that taxpayers are aware of such benefits, is a top priority of the agency,” the senators continued. “However, we have found that resources on educational assistance programs are difficult to locate on the IRS website. Additionally, within these hard-to-find and limited resources, the expansion of the program to include student loan debt as a qualifying tax-free educational expense is not highlighted as new information and the eligibility window is deeply buried. Furthermore, online IRS webinars have failed to adequately promote employer-provided educational assistance programs and call attention to student loan debt payments as a qualifying expense.” 

The senators requested the IRS take a series of steps to better promote these programs and ensure that employers and employees are fully aware of the benefits afforded to them, including that:

  • The IRS host and publish webinars on employer-provided educational assistance programs;
  • The IRS publish new and robust resources to aide employers seeking to take advantage of section 127 benefits;
  • And the IRS communicate expanded section 127 benefits and new resources to employers and employees, including, but not limited to, transmitting this information through IRS e-newsletters for business owners.

Created in 1978 and made permanent in 2012, section 127 of the IRS Code provides a tax benefit allowing employers to contribute up to $5,250 in tax-free annual assistance to employees pursuing continued education. In 2019, with broad bipartisan support, Sens. Warner and Thune introduced the Employer Participation in Repayment Act, legislation that extends this tax-free benefit to employees’ existing student loans. The senators played a key role in extending this provision through 2025 as part of the 2021 government spending package.  

A copy of the letter can be found here and below. 

Dear Commissioner Werfel,

We write to urge the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to take meaningful steps to effectively promote educational assistance benefits provided under section 127 of the Internal Revenue Code, specifically the temporary provision within the law that allows employers to contribute up to $5,250 tax-free towards their employees’ student loans annually. This provision within section 127 is a win-win for employers and employees, as it provides a pathway towards student loan debt relief for borrowers and provides employers with another option to recruit and retain talent necessary to grow their businesses.

Nationwide, Americans owe more than $1.7 trillion in student loan debt, outstripping credit cards and auto loans as the country’s leading source of non-housing debt. With increased college costs leading to students taking on more debt, the need for innovative solutions to ease the burden of student loan debt is greater than ever. That is why we were pleased to secure passage of our Employer Participation in Repayment Act (EPRA), which reformed educational assistance programs under section 127 to include student loans payments as a qualifying educational expense.

Prior to this change, employers with educational assistance programs could provide their employees with up to $5,250 per year in tax-free benefits for ongoing education purposes (e.g., tuition and fees). The EPRA provision that we championed as part of the CARES Act amended section 127, expanding the $5,250 tax-free, annual benefit to include student loan payments through 2020, with subsequent legislation extending this benefit through 2025. In other words, as a result of this change in the law, employers are provided with an important tool to help their employees pay down outstanding student loan debt.

The modernization of section 127 better meets the needs of today’s workforce, as it not only helps individuals pay down their student loans, but also serves as a unique tool for employers to attract and retain talented employees. Additionally, employer-sponsored student loan repayment under section 127 helps employees get out of debt faster and put more of their hard-earned paycheck towards other necessities. While we were proud to champion this necessary expansion of section 127, as its sunset date approaches we want to make sure that we are maximizing the reach of this important benefit.

According to a 2023 survey of over 4,000 participants representing independent organizations, 48% of respondents indicated that their organization provides undergraduate or graduate tuition assistance. However, only 8% of responding organizations shared that they offer student loan repayment as an educational assistance benefit. This underscores the need for the IRS to use all tools at the agency’s disposal to increase awareness among employers about recent changes to section 127. Furthermore, the IRS should take steps to ensure that employers of all sizes have resources available to them to quickly form an educational assistance program for their workforce.

During your testimony before the Senate Finance Committee on April 19, 2023, you stated that outreach on section 127, including ensuring that taxpayers are aware of such benefits, is a top priority of the agency. However, we have found that resources on educational assistance programs are difficult to locate on the IRS website. Additionally, within these hard-to-find and limited resources, the expansion of the program to include student loan debt as a qualifying tax-free educational expense is not highlighted as new information and the eligibility window is deeply buried. Furthermore, online IRS webinars have failed to adequately promote employer-provided educational assistance programs and call attention to student loan debt payments as a qualifying expense.

To ensure that employers and employees are fully aware of the benefits afforded to them under section 127, we request that you take the following actions:

1)      We request that the IRS host and publish webinars on employer-provided educational assistance programs. Webinars should provide details on student loan debt being a qualifying expense under section 127 and provide participants with the opportunity to engage in a meaningful Q&A session with IRS staff. Furthermore, webinars should be scheduled with adequate notice periods, promoted in conjunction with relevant stakeholders, including industry associations, and published prominently on the agency’s website for future reference.

2)      We request that the IRS publish new and robust resources to aide employers seeking to take advantage of section 127 benefits. These new resources should include a sample written plan for employers to utilize and the addition of a ‘Frequently Asked Questions’ section on employer-provided educational assistance programs to the IRS webpage. These resources should be clearly visible and prominently displayed on the IRS webpage.

3)      Finally, we ask that the IRS communicate expanded section 127 benefits and new resources to employers and employees, including, but not limited to, transmitting this information through IRS e-newsletters for business owners.

We are hopeful that by providing additional resources and informing employers and employees of section 127 benefits, we will address our shared goals of promoting workforce development, improving worker recruitment and retention, and providing much-needed student loan debt relief.

We appreciate your attention to this matter and look forward to your prompt response.

Sincerely,

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WASHINGTON – Last week, U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner, Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and Tim Kaine (both D-VA), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, sent letters to the Air Force, Army, Navy, and to the Department of Defense (DoD) regarding their implementation of privatized housing reforms and tenant protections for servicemembers and their families. After hearing from military families in Virginia about the hazardous and unsafe living conditions in many privatized military housing units that included leaking roofs, mold, and rodents, Sens. Warner and Kaine championed housing reforms, including the “Tenant Bill of Rights” in the Fiscal Year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), and the Senators have continued to push for housing support in subsequent defense bills.

Despite passing legislation to improve these conditions, a recent U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) study found that while DoD has made progress in implementing provisions, “gaps in guidance and training remain.” The Senators are urging DoD and each military branch to take a range of steps, including the necessary actions outlined in the report, to ensure that they are meeting their obligations towards servicemembers and properly implementing all necessary reforms. Specifically, the GAO focused on implementation of three reforms in order to give servicemembers and their families more leverage when dealing with unsafe and inadequate living conditions:

  • More detailed guidance on the formal dispute resolution process;
  • Improved guidance on the role of tenant advocates;
  • Better oversight of the condition of private housing units.

The Senators also called on DoD and the services to better incorporate resident feedback into the implementation process of the various protections, in order to inform continued progress and highlight areas for additional reform.

“Having spent years addressing privatized housing concerns from multiple fronts – hearing from families firsthand who are dealing with challenges, and helping them to address those; working with installation leadership to push for greater oversight and accountability for these housing projects; and demanding action from the privatized housing companies – we have been incredibly disturbed by some of the conditions that members of the military and their families have been subjected to,” the Senators wrote.

“The purpose of these reforms and continued Congressional oversight is to provide long-overdue improvement to the experience that military members and their families have with the privatized housing system,” they continued. “It is vital that the protections and reforms that we have put in place are implemented in a way that works for residents, and there must be a continual effort to examine the use of these reforms and processes.”

The letters include a series of questions aimed at better understanding the progress being made in implementation as well as better understanding what is causing certain delays. Among the questions are inquiries about the branches’ process when enacting these reforms as well as questions on what is being done to standardize implementation across the country so that all members of the military have access to, and can utilize, the same protections.

A copy of the letters can be found here

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WASHINGTON – U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine joined Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and 13 of their Senate colleagues in urging the Biden Administration to help streamline health insurance enrollment for low-income families. In their letter to U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary (HHS) Xavier Becerra and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure, the senators urged the Administration to support state-level “Easy Enrollment” initiatives, which make it easier for uninsured, low-income families to sign up for health insurance by allowing them to sign up when filing their state income tax returns. Nearly 30 million Americans do not have health insurance and, as of this year, about 18 million who are eligible for programs like Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), and Advanced Premium Tax Credits still aren’t covered. State-based Easy Enrollment programs aim to close this gap. The senators called on HHS and CMS to address administrative barriers that reduce the efficiency of states’ Easy Enrollment programs, in order to make it easier for low-income families to access health care.

In 2020, the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation establishing an Easy Enrollment program. The first phase of Virginia’s Easy Enrollment program started this year and checks for Medicaid and CHIP eligibility.

“Easy Enrollment efforts ultimately aim to let uninsured tax filers request automatic enrollment in Medicaid, CHIP, or zero-premium Marketplace coverage, but these initiatives are facing unnecessary bureaucratic obstacles. To reach as many eligible uninsured as possible, these states seek to limit the need for people who have already filed their tax returns to complete further paperwork before obtaining health care coverage,” they wrote.

To help states streamline their Easy Enrollment initiatives, the senators urge the Administration to allow states to:

  • Verify filers’ financial eligibility for programs like Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).
  • Confirm their citizenship status using existing electronic records.
  • Waive tax reconciliation penalties for consumers who choose to automatically enroll in zero-premium Marketplace plans after they have enrolled in health care coverage.

The senators note, “With these three flexibilities, States could strengthen Easy Enrollment programs so that numerous uninsured people who are already known to be U.S. citizens could choose to be enrolled automatically into Medicaid, CHIP, and Marketplace plans, based on qualifying income shown on their state income tax returns.”

“Given the large and growing number of states pursuing Easy Enrollment initiatives, we recommend that CMS develop one or more templates making it easy for states to obtain federal approvals needed to maximize coverage gains from this promising approach. In the meantime, we urge the Administration to work proactively with states and to quickly approve state proposals to take the above steps. Easy Enrollment requires coordinating policy and operations between state health and tax agencies, so planning for 2024 Easy Enrollment has already begun. Clear and early guidance showing federal support for automating enrollment, as outlined in this letter, would give our states and others the confidence to innovate boldly and effectively in closing America’s large, persistent, and inequitable enrollment gap,” the senators concluded.

Sens. Warner, Kaine, and Van Hollen were joined in sending this letter by Sens. Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Ben Ray Luján (D-NM), Angus King (I-ME), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Bob Casey (D-PA), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Alex Padilla (D-CA), John Hickenlooper (D-CO), John Fetterman (D-PA), Bob Menendez (D-NJ), and Ed Markey (D-MA).

A copy of the letter is available here and below.

Dear Secretary Becerra and Administrator Brooks-LaSure:

We are writing to urge the Biden-Harris Administration to strengthen its efforts to support state initiatives to automate the enrollment of eligible, uninsured families into health programs for which they qualify.

Such initiatives address a serious problem: America’s enrollment gap. Roughly two-thirds of our country’s uninsured residents – more than 18 million people -- qualify for but are not enrolled in Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), or low-cost Marketplace plans bought with advance premium tax credits (APTCs). Thanks to the Inflation Reduction Act, most people in the enrollment gap qualify for zero-premium insurance but are not enrolled, often because of administrative barriers or because they do not know about available health programs. People of color and workers without college degrees make up a disproportionate share of uninsured families caught in the enrollment gap.

To close that gap, ten states that, together, include one-third of America’s Medicaid-eligible uninsured population—California, Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and Virginia—have enacted “Easy Enrollment” programs that let families use state income tax returns to jumpstart health care enrollment. Uninsured tax filers can check a box asking to have their return information forwarded to state health agencies to see if their families qualify for free or low-cost insurance. Easy Enrollment efforts ultimately aim to let uninsured tax filers request automatic enrollment in Medicaid, CHIP, or zero-premium Marketplace coverage, but these initiatives are facing unnecessary bureaucratic obstacles. To reach as many eligible uninsured as possible, these states seek to limit the need for people who have already filed their tax returns to complete further paperwork before obtaining health care coverage.

President Biden signed an Executive Order on his first day in office calling on federal agencies to overcome “potential barriers that underserved communities and individuals may face to enrollment.” In its effort to implement this executive order, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) highlighted the importance of lightening the administrative burdens families face. OMB also reported that “administrative burdens…do not fall equally on all…, leading to disproportionate underutilization of critical services…often by the people and communities who need them the most.” The President thus signed an additional Executive Order calling on federal agencies “to the maximum extent permitted by law… to ensure eligible individuals are automatically enrolled in…critical benefit programs.”

By leveraging income-tax filing to streamline and automate enrollment, Easy Enrollment programs could reach most of America’s uninsured families. In 2021, 94% of uninsured adults filed federal income tax returns, including 90% of uninsured adults with incomes below 150% of the federal poverty level, 93% of uninsured people of color, and 93% of uninsured adults who never graduated high school.

The Administration has compiled a remarkable track record bringing health insurance to an ever-widening circle of families in America. To build on that record, we urge the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) and the Treasury Department to issue guidance allowing three flexibilities for state Easy Enrollment programs, all of which are well within current statutory and regulatory authority:

  • States should be allowed to verify citizenship through electronic records, without requiring families to submit redundant paperwork. Applicants for health programs must complete forms attesting, under penalty of perjury, to U.S. citizenship or satisfactory immigration status. To facilitate auto-enrollment efforts, CMS should waive that requirement under Social Security Act §1115 and Affordable Care Act §1411(c)(4)(B) when a state has already confirmed that an uninsured applicant is a U.S. citizen, based on matches between identifying information on the tax return and federally approved sources of citizenship data.
  • States should be allowed to base financial eligibility for Medicaid on state income tax records. Financial eligibility for Medicaid reflects current income. A state implementing the option for “Express Lane Eligibility,” or ELE, can qualify children as financially eligible based entirely on information from other income-based programs or the family’s state income tax return. CMS should make clear that it is willing to grant §1115 waivers permitting states to use ELE’s tax return option to establish financial eligibility, not just for children, but for adults as well.
  • States should be allowed to have tax reconciliation penalties waived for consumers they automatically enroll into zero-premium Marketplace plans. Someone enrolled into a zero-premium plan may owe federal tax reconciliation payments if their annual income turns out to exceed expected levels. For states to reliably promise that zero-premium plans will truly cost enrollees nothing, CMS and the Treasury Department should make clear that ACA §1332 allows waivers of tax reconciliation for people the state auto-enrolls into such plans.

With these three flexibilities, States could strengthen Easy Enrollment programs so that numerous uninsured people who are already known to be U.S. citizens could choose to be enrolled automatically into Medicaid, CHIP, and Marketplace plans, based on qualifying income shown on their state income tax returns.

Given the large and growing number of states pursuing Easy Enrollment initiatives, we recommend that CMS develop one or more templates making it easy for states to obtain federal approvals needed to maximize coverage gains from this promising approach. In the meantime, we urge the Administration to work proactively with states and to quickly approve state proposals to take the above steps. Easy Enrollment requires coordinating policy and operations between state health and tax agencies, so planning for 2024 Easy Enrollment has already begun. Clear and early guidance showing federal support for automating enrollment, as outlined in this letter, would give our states and others the confidence to innovate boldly and effectively in closing America’s large, persistent, and inequitable enrollment gap.

Sincerely, 

 

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WASHINGTON?– Today, U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-VA) and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) sent a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) urging them to ensure that investments through the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund (GGRF), a key Inflation Reduction Act program, serve to strengthen diverse-owned financial institutions dedicated to climate financing in low-income communities and communities of color. Today’s letter comes as the EPA prepares to release the Notices of Funding Opportunity for the GGRF, a competitive grant program to boost clean energy and climate projects in low-income and disadvantaged communities.  

“We write to urge the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in its review of applications for funding from the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund (GGRF), to give priority to applicants whose proposals fully utilize the diversity of financial institutions engaged in climate finance, including green banks, community development financial institutions (CDFIs) and minority depository institutions (MDIs), as well as center their investment approach on low income and disadvantaged (LID) communities,” wrote the lawmakers in a letter to the EPA. “Specifically, CDFIs and MDIs leverage capital and have a proven track record of providing products and service to the most underserved communities. We urge EPA to heed the lessons learned from the Paycheck Protection Program regarding the importance of being intentional with program design when driving investments in low income and disadvantaged communities.”  

In the letter, the lawmakers stressed the need to award this federal funding so that it goes towards projects and communities that lack access to affordable capital. They also highlighted the importance of ensuring that grant recipients have the structure, diversity, and track record needed to meet the goals of the GGRF. 

“[T]he entities receiving direct federal investment must also demonstrate experience navigating green financing projects and have shown the ability to manage these projects across a variety of communities in order to achieve [Greenhouse Gas] GHG emissions reductions and develop successful projects. It is critical that the EPA balance out these needs for both financial viability and project-level expertise in order to maximize the fund’s performance across all metrics,” they continued. “Additionally, since the Justice40 prioritization should be a floor, not a ceiling, the EPA should require applicants to provide a strategy for how they will drive awareness, demand, and adoption of clean technologies in LID communities. We urge you to learn about community-level solutions that the Fund can support, especially solutions from low-income and disadvantaged communities.” 

Further, the lawmakers urged the EPA to make important adjustments and issue guidance in order to maximize the impact of the funding in vulnerable communities.  

“The success of the program in LID communities depends heavily on the ability to develop an ecosystem that supports other actors, including clean energy and workforce developers. Although the EPA guidance makes available $625,000 for technical assistance for indirect recipients, in order to drive demand and create an ecosystem we recommend that the EPA require some of these funds be aggregated and administered at the national level by the eligible recipient,” they wrote. “The Implementation Framework released by EPA caps the amount per indirect recipient at $5,000,000, which may not be the most impactful way to reach LID communities. For example, some communities have a limited number of mission driven lenders (e.g. CDFI deserts), making the cap on indirect investments have an impact on the amount of climate financing in those communities. We urge you to adjust this limitation on indirect investments to account for more factors, including demand, size of the institution and impact.” 

Among other measures, the lawmakers also suggested that the EPA review the deep impact standards created by the Department of the Treasury for the Emergency Capital Investment Program (ECIP) – a key initiative created as part of a Warner-championed $12 billion investment?to open up new credit opportunities for low-income communities and communities of color. 

Joining Sen. Warner and Rep. Waters in sending the letter are Sens. Raphael Warnock (D-GA), Tina Smith (D-MN), and Alex Padilla (D-CA), as well as Reps. Nydia M. Velázquez (D-NY), Gregory W. Meeks (D-NY), and Judy Chu (D-CA).  

Text of the letter is available here and below. ? 

Dear Administrator Regan:

We applaud the EPA in taking an important step forward by providing guidance through the Implementation Framework for the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund and express our continued support for the swift implementation of this critical program. We agree with the EPA’s principles that this program can reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and other air pollutants, deliver benefits of projects to American communities, particularly those in LID communities, and mobilize financing and private capital to stimulate additional deployment of GHG reducing projects.

We write to urge the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in its review of applications for funding from the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund (GGRF), to give priority to applicants whose proposals fully utilize the diversity of financial institutions engaged in climate finance, including green banks, community development financial institutions (CDFIs) and minority depository institutions (MDIs), as well as center their investment approach on low income and disadvantaged (LID) communities. It is important that EPA adhere to the meaning and intent of Congress in the text of the Inflation Reduction Act (Pub. L. 117-169) (IRA) which highlights a dual mission of reducing greenhouse gases, while impacting LID communities.

In order to meet the objectives and principles outlined in the Implementation Framework, we believe eligible recipients must include meaningful involvement of a variety of financial institutions and business models, including clean financing institutions, community based-financing institutions, and other institutions designed to support clean technology deployment. Specifically, CDFIs and MDIs leverage capital and have a proven track record of providing products and service to the most underserved communities. We urge EPA to heed the lessons learned from the Paycheck Protection Program regarding the importance of being intentional with program design when driving investments in low income and disadvantaged communities. As a result, we believe that an ideal applicant for GGRF funds should have a shared governance structure that is diverse and accountable to local communities, have a plan for continued operability that includes experience investing in or with a variety of mission driven financial institutions, a market transformation approach that effectively crowds-in private capital without displacing otherwise commercially viable investment activities, a strategy for driving demand in LID communities, and an approach that incentivizes a significant amount of investment in the most underserved of the LID communities.

A shared governance structure where decision-making authority is granted to a variety of financial institutions and implementation partners is critical to meeting the goals of the GGRF, particularly in the competition for the National Clean Investment Fund. Mission driven lenders have different business models and products, making it essential that the governing body of the eligible recipient reflect that diversity of expertise and approach. To maximize the program’s success, the governing body must include green banks, CDFIs, MDIs, and other mission driven lenders with experience in climate finance and investment in LID communities. The governing body must be appropriately empowered and go beyond advisory to ensure capital allocation decisions reflect the diversity of business models among indirect recipients and private capital providers. Additionally, the governing body should reflect the demographic diversity of our nation and demonstrate accountability to local communities. 

The IRA includes a “continued operability” requirement that ensures that direct investments be structured to ensure all communities continue to be served beyond the initial award of funds to an eligible recipient.  However, in the Implementation Framework released on April 19, 2023 the EPA decided to separate direct investment and indirect investments into two separate competitions. This policy decision likely eliminates the possibility of cross-subsidies that would ensure continued operability for indirect investments in LID communities, which typically need a deeper subsidy. If the EPA opts to continue with separate competitions, we believe the agency should give priority to applicants that are applying for or collaborating across both competitions, have a strong track record of leveraging private capital, and a demonstrated ability to diversify a portfolio that includes debt, equity and grants in a way that meets the needs of a variety of financial institutions. Without a strong track record, direct recipients will not be able to instill confidence in the capital markets and optimize leverage across the portfolio at the indirect recipient level as well as at the qualified project level. We urge you to continue working closely with the staff from the U.S. Department of the Treasury that have experience internally, and through their consultants, making these types of investments in mission driven lenders. This includes a $12 billion suite of capital and grant programs to support CDFIs, MDIs, and the communities they serve, as well as the renewed State Small Business Credit Initiative (SSBCI) that is supporting up to $100 billion in small business loans, investments, and technical assistance through various state, tribal, and territory government programs.  We urge you to collaborate with them to maximize the impact of GGRF for communities that need the support the most.

Similarly, the entities receiving direct federal investment must also demonstrate experience navigating green financing projects and have shown the ability to manage these projects across a variety of communities in order to achieve GHG emissions reductions and develop successful projects. It is critical that the EPA balance out these needs for both financial viability and project-level expertise in order to maximize the fund’s performance across all metrics. The EPA should seek to work with entities that are composed of both impact-oriented institutions as well as green financing entities, to ensure that the goals of impact, performance, GHG emissions reductions and long-term sustainability are achieved.

Furthermore, the impact of the GGRF should not be to crowd out private capital but instead to focus on those eligible projects and communities that lack access to affordable capital. Although the IRA states that eligible recipients should prioritize projects that lack access to financing, the EPA should be focused on market transformation. Displacing affordable private capital focused on the broad use and adoption of clean technologies would run counter to the country’s climate goals.

Additionally, since the Justice40 prioritization should be a floor, not a ceiling, the EPA should require applicants to provide a strategy for how they will drive awareness, demand, and adoption of clean technologies in LID communities. We urge you to learn about community-level solutions that the Fund can support, especially solutions from low-income and disadvantaged communities. In addition, CDFIs and MDIs have a long track record of serving communities long ignored by the traditional banking sector, including the development of financing and financial tools that meet the needs of low-income and disadvantaged communities. Simply put, reducing emissions and lowering energy costs among those communities will be best accomplished through the use of financing tools, grant support, and effective outreach to generate demand, change behavior, and build local capacity.  It’s important that applicants prioritize technologies that will transform LID communities – saving households money on energy costs, creating quality jobs, and improving air quality - and work within the existing debt burden of families in LID communities. However, these communities cannot be served with financing tools alone and will need significant grant support across the value chain to generate demand, change behavior, and build local capacity. The success of the program in LID communities depends heavily on the ability to develop an ecosystem that supports other actors, including clean energy and workforce developers. Although the EPA guidance makes available $625,000 for technical assistance for indirect recipients, in order to drive demand and create an ecosystem we recommend that the EPA require some of these funds be aggregated and administered at the national level by the eligible recipient.

Driving demand will also need to be accompanied by a meaningful level of investment in mission driven lenders in order to change behavior. The Implementation Framework released by EPA caps the amount per indirect recipient at $5,000,000, which may not be the most impactful way to reach LID communities. For example, some communities have a limited number of mission driven lenders (e.g. CDFI deserts), making the cap on indirect investments have an impact on the amount of climate financing in those communities. We urge you to adjust this limitation on indirect investments to account for more factors, including demand, size of the institution and impact.

Finally, we urge you, after defining low income and disadvantaged community, to encourage applicants to the GGRF to structure a significant number of their investments in a way that incentivizes investments in the most underserved low income and disadvantaged communities, including those affected by high rates of adverse health and environmental outcomes. Investments in some underserved communities, like areas of persistent poverty and majority-minority communities, often are more time consuming and costly than in some other communities that are also considered underserved. Also, the definition of LID should include people focused categories, like the CDFI definitions for Low Income Targeted Populations (LITP) and Other Targeted Populations (OTP), to make sure that the low income and minority people who live in the LID communities are also directly benefiting from the GGRF.  We urge you to look at the deep impact standards created by Treasury for the Emergency Capital Investment Program (ECIP) and encourage eligible recipients to make investments in mission driven lenders that include similar financial incentives for investments in the most underserved communities. 

We share a dedication to decarbonization and justice and hope that we can work together with you and our nation’s mission driven lenders to meet the goals of the GGRF.

Sincerely,

###

WASHINGTON – As violence between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) continues for a third week, U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine (both D-VA), joined by Sens. Ben Cardin (D-MD), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), John Hickenlooper (D-CO), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Michael Bennet (D-CO), have formally requested that the Biden administration offer all available support for humanitarian efforts in the region. The worsening conditions in Sudan have resulted in hundreds of civilian deaths and have forced hundreds of thousands to flee in search of safety.

In a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator Samantha Power, the senators highlighted the continued and indiscriminate violence, which has significantly worsened the humanitarian situation, and disrupted aid operations on the ground. According to the United Nations, even prior to the recent outbreak in violence nearly 16 million people in Sudan were estimated to be in need of humanitarian assistance.

“As the violence has escalated, its impact has been far reaching across all sectors of society. Damage to critical civilian infrastructure, including transportation and communication infrastructure, has limited the ability of people and basic goods to move throughout the country; damage to hospitals, depleted resources, and broken medical supply chains have largely degraded the nation’s health care capacity; and continued conflict has left significant portions of the population sheltering in their homes, with dwindling or exhausted supplies of food, water, and medicine,” the senators wrote. “As the UN’s top humanitarian affairs official said this week, ‘the humanitarian situation is reaching [a] breaking point.’ Unfortunately, this conflict has also deteriorated the flow and delivery of humanitarian assistance into Sudan, and aid groups’ ability to operate on the ground.”

Noting the indiscriminate violence and reported gross violations of international humanitarian law, the senators echoed calls for the parties to the conflict to ensure safe access and movement for humanitarian workers and medical personnel. They requested that the U.S. designate a senior diplomat or envoy to ensure that securing these humanitarian assurances remains a priority in direct negotiations, and that we engage with neighboring countries to help address the cross-border challenges seen from mass movement out of Sudan. Additionally, they voiced support for USAID and State Department efforts to support aid organizations in returning to Sudan quickly and safely, leverage local humanitarian organizations as part of the ongoing response to the violence, and engage with international partners as part of the U.S. response strategy.

The senators continued, “[A]s aid organizations work to reestablish operations, it is vital that the U.S. State Department and USAID provide all available support to facilitate ongoing aid operations on the ground, and support a resumption of efforts – whether in Sudan or in neighboring countries – that have been suspended due to the violence. In response to the significant need, and in part to fill in as international organizations have been forced to suspend their operations, a range of local and national Sudanese organizations have stepped forward to provide capacity. We encourage you to use flexibility in supporting these local efforts, in order to best leverage them alongside international efforts.”

Sens. Warner and Kaine, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC), have been vocal about their support for aid efforts in Sudan and for the Sudanese diaspora in the United States, which in 2021 totaled more than 54,000 immigrants from Sudan, with the highest concentration located in Fairfax County, VA. Earlier this week, the senators called on the Biden administration to issue a new Temporary Protected Status (TPS) designation for Sudan, which would provide relief from deportation and access to a work permit for foreign nationals from the country currently in the United States.

A copy of the letter can be found here and below. 

Dear Secretary Blinken and Administrator Power,

We write with deep concern regarding the horrific violence in Sudan, and its impact on the rapidly declining humanitarian situation on the ground. Now in its third week, the conflict between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and Rapid Support Forces (RSF) has left hundreds dead, thousands more injured, and has forced hundreds of thousands of individuals to flee to neighboring regions and countries.

As the violence has severely disrupted humanitarian assistance on the ground – including by forcing some organizations to withdraw or suspend their efforts – we urge that you offer all available support to resume aid operations, take steps to reposition aid resources to reflect the current security environment, leverage local organizations as part of an ongoing response strategy, and continue efforts to marshal an international response.

Direct negotiations facilitated by the United States are critical to the reestablishment of a robust international aid response, and we urge that assurances for immediate and safe aid operations be made a primary focus of those negotiations.

We are deeply grateful for the U.S. Government’s efforts in evacuating U.S. Embassy personnel, and American citizens from Sudan. However, the recent conflict has hit areas like Khartoum and Darfur particularly hard, and it tragically exacerbates the existing crisis and humanitarian need across the country. According to the United Nations (UN), even prior to the recent outbreak in violence nearly 16 million people were estimated to be in need of humanitarian assistance – a figure that represents close to a third of the total population in Sudan. Even prior to the start of the conflict, the crisis was already acute – more than 4 million children and pregnant and lactating women are counted as being “severely malnourished.”

As the violence has escalated, its impact has been far reaching across all sectors of society. Damage to critical civilian infrastructure, including transportation and communication infrastructure, has limited the ability of people and basic goods to move throughout the country; damage to hospitals, depleted resources, and broken medical supply chains have largely degraded the nation’s health care capacity; and continued conflict has left significant portions of the population sheltering in their homes, with dwindling or exhausted supplies of food, water, and medicine. As the UN’s top humanitarian affairs official said this week, “the humanitarian situation is reaching [a] breaking point.”

Unfortunately, this conflict has also deteriorated the flow and delivery of humanitarian assistance into Sudan, and aid groups’ ability to operate on the ground. The men and women who work for the U.S. State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), as well as those employed by international relief organizations, have committed themselves to careers seeking to alleviate suffering around the world, oftentimes carrying out this mission in harm’s way. Tragically, in the first two weeks of fighting at least five international aid workers had been killed, and there have been broader threats targeting aid personnel and supplies.

To be clear, the blame for the disruptions to aid and casualties lie with the warring parties. Reported gross violations of international humanitarian law have greatly impacted the safety of aid personnel, and directly contribute to the suffering of the Sudanese people. We echo international calls for the parties to the conflict to ensure safe access and movement for humanitarian workers and medical personnel, and to allow for steady streams of aid into and throughout the country.

In response to the dire humanitarian need, the reestablishment of these aid flows is critical. We understand that organizations are looking at how to best reposition and recalibrate support in light of the serious security risks. We appreciate the direct efforts that the U.S. Government has initiated to support humanitarian assistance, including USAID’s activation of a Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) on April 23, and we urge you to take steps to safely reposition and pre-position resources so that they can best be utilized on the ground as soon as possible.

Additionally, as aid organizations work to reestablish operations, it is vital that the U.S. State Department and USAID provide all available support to facilitate ongoing aid operations on the ground, and support a resumption of efforts – whether in Sudan or in neighboring countries – that have been suspended due to the violence. In response to the significant need, and in part to fill in as international organizations have been forced to suspend their operations, a range of local and national Sudanese organizations have stepped forward to provide capacity. We encourage you to use flexibility in supporting these local efforts, in order to best leverage them alongside international efforts.

In an alarming estimate earlier this week, the UN projected that the ongoing conflict may drive more than 860,000 individuals to flee from Sudan into neighboring countries. We have already seen significant levels of migration out of Sudan over the past three weeks, which at many points has overwhelmed border capacity, thereby creating additional humanitarian concerns at these crossings. We welcome U.S. efforts to engage these neighboring countries and the UN to increase border capacity, ensure UN and international non-governmental organizations (INGO) access to these border crossings, provide additional aid along these routes, and scale up planning efforts to account for significant anticipated volume.

It is critical that negotiations involving a ceasefire between the warring parties prioritize the immediate creation of safe and durable humanitarian access to those in need. Additionally, we urge the deployment of an appointed special envoy or other senior diplomat to the region to engage directly with neighboring countries to ensure the free movement of individuals seeking safety out of Sudan, and that UN and INGOs are able to provide needed assistance in these border efforts.

It is vital that the U.S. continue its diplomatic engagement to push for a durable cessation of violence, in partnership with the African Union, and other regional and international partners. This cessation ultimately is the only path towards ensuring that urgent humanitarian needs on the ground are met. It must, however, also be accompanied by a concerted international effort, which fully resources the work done by aid organizations.

We have listened to concerns about what this ongoing violence means for individuals’ loved ones in Sudan, and for the country’s future. We support and encourage all efforts by the U.S. Government to be a forward-leaning and strong partner in the international aid response to this crisis in Sudan. Finally, we request regular updates and briefings from the State Department and USAID on the delivery of humanitarian aid for civilians in Sudan, and from the State Department on the evacuation of American citizens.                                                                                

Sincerely,

 

###

WASHINGTON – With violence erupting across the country, resulting in hundreds of civilian deaths and forcing hundreds of thousands to flee in search of safety, U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine (both D-VA) today formally requested that the Biden administration issue a new Temporary Protected Status (TPS) designation for Sudan.

In a letter to Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the senators expressed their concern with the worsening humanitarian conditions in Sudan as intense fighting continues across the country despite multiple attempted ceasefires.

“In recent weeks, violence in Sudan has claimed hundreds of lives, injured thousands, forcibly displaced tens of thousands, and terrorized many more,” the senators wrote. “Despite multiple attempted ceasefires between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), intense and indiscriminate fighting continues across the country, including within the densely populated capital of Khartoum, and in the continuously conflict-stricken region of Darfur. Ongoing hostilities have led to the near collapse of the healthcare system, significantly disrupted the flow of humanitarian aid into the country, and in many cases made access to basic resources like food, water, and medication impossible.”

Established by the U.S. Congress through the Immigration Act of 1990, TPS is a temporary, renewable program that provides relief from deportation and access to a work permit for foreign nationals from certain countries who are unable to return safely to their home country due to natural disasters, armed conflicts, or other extraordinary conditions. There are more than 54,000 immigrants from Sudan in the United States as of 2021, according to data, with the highest concentration located in Fairfax County, VA.

The senators continued, “Given the extremely violent clashes, deteriorating conditions, and the posture of the Department of State, it is clear that Sudan meets the standards for TPS. To that end, it is critical that a new designation be issued for Sudan that reflects the ongoing armed conflict and the continued extraordinary and temporary conditions on the ground.”

Last week Sen. Warner expressed his support for the steps the Biden administration has taken to deliver humanitarian assistance to the region and push for an end to the violence through diplomatic efforts. Sen. Kaine, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC), has been pushing for the administration to ensure the safety and security of U.S. citizens in Sudan and urging both sides to commit to a permanent ceasefire. Last week, he held an event in Richmond with members of Virginia’s Sudanese American community to hear their perspectives on the conflict and discuss ways he can be helpful. Sens. Warner and Kaine have been longtime supporters of the TPS program for regions facing instability, most recently joining 116 of their colleagues in a letter, led by Sen. Kaine and Rep. Castro, to the Biden administration requesting the redesignation of TPS for El Salvador and Honduras and celebrating the Biden administration’s decision to issue a Temporary Protected Status designation for Cameroon during a period of unrelenting violence.

A copy of the letter can be found here and below. 

Dear Secretary Mayorkas and Secretary Blinken:

We urge you to issue a new Temporary Protected Status (TPS) designation for Sudan, as the current armed conflict between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) has led to a mass exodus of individuals fleeing violence, scarcity of essential goods, and rapidly deteriorating health services. A new designation would protect current Sudanese TPS holders from returning to Sudan in the midst of this violence and would offer protected status to Sudanese nationals who arrived after March 1, 2022.

In recent weeks, violence in Sudan has claimed hundreds of lives, injured thousands, forcibly displaced tens of thousands, and terrorized many more. Despite multiple attempted ceasefires between the SAF and the RSF, intense and indiscriminate fighting continues across the country, including within the densely populated capital of Khartoum, and in the continuously conflict-stricken region of Darfur. Ongoing hostilities have led to the near collapse of the healthcare system, significantly disrupted the flow of humanitarian aid into the country, and in many cases made access to basic resources like food, water, and medication impossible.

Due to the continued threat of armed conflict, on April 22, 2023, the U.S Department of State issued a Level 4: Do Not Travel advisory and ordered the departure of Embassy employees. This is part of a broader effort by the U.S., in coordination with regional and international partners, to evacuate U.S. nationals from Khartoum and allow for a safe path into neighboring countries. Given the extremely violent clashes, deteriorating conditions, and the posture of the Department of State, it is clear that Sudan meets the standards for TPS. To that end, it is critical that a new designation be issued for Sudan that reflects the ongoing armed conflict and the continued extraordinary and temporary conditions on the ground.

It is important to note that, while the situation is rapidly changing, the threat will not subside immediately once the conflict stops. Lasting damage has been done to Sudan’s telecommunications networks, electrical infrastructure, and transportation systems, including to Khartoum International Airport, making international travel extremely difficult. 

Redesignating Sudan’s TPS status would also provide much needed clarity for current Sudanese TPS holders and would offer protection for Sudanese individuals who entered the U.S. more recently. As you know, Sudanese nationals living in the United States can currently apply for TPS under the April 2022 designation, which expires on October 19, 2023. TPS holders under the 2013 designation are facing an uncertain future due to ongoing litigation. The expiration date of TPS documentation under the 2013 designation is contingent on the outcome of the Ramos v. Nielsen case – a lawsuit determining the legality of the Trump Administration’s termination of Sudan’s 2013 designation – which could potentially remove status for TPS holders who have not applied under the 2022 designation.

Additionally, while TPS holders registered under the 2022 designation are exempt from the ongoing litigation, their protection expires in October. Further, there is currently no recourse for Sudanese nationals who have arrived in the U.S. after March 2022. This uncertainty and the continued dangerous circumstances in Sudan have created considerable hardship for TPS recipients and their families, including American-born children.

A new TPS designation for Sudan would protect eligible beneficiaries from the dangers they face if they were removed and would provide protection for newer arrivals. In light of these considerations, we strongly urge you to redesignate TPS for Sudan to ensure that Sudanese nationals already living in the U.S. are not forced to return to a nation facing violence and instability.

Thank you for your consideration of this important matter.

Sincerely,

###

WASHINGTON – U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-VA), Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, today urged CEOs of several artificial intelligence (AI) companies to prioritize security, combat bias, and responsibly roll out new technologies. In a series of letters, Sen. Warner expressed concerns about the potential risks posed by AI technology, and called on companies to ensure that their products and systems are secure.

In the past several years, AI technology has rapidly advanced while chatbots and other generative AI products have simultaneously widened the accessibility of AI products and services. As these technologies are rolled out broadly, open source researchers have repeatedly demonstrated a number of concerning, exploitable weaknesses in the prominent products, including abilities to generate credible-seeming misinformation, develop malware, and craft sophisticated phishing techniques.

“[W]ith the increasing use of AI across large swaths of our economy, and the possibility for large language models to be steadily integrated into a range of existing systems, from healthcare to finance sectors, I see an urgent need to underscore the importance of putting security at the forefront of your work,” Sen. Warner wrote. “Beyond industry commitments, however, it is also clear that some level of regulation is necessary in this field.”

Sen. Warner highlighted several specific security risks associated with AI, including data supply chain security and data poisoning attacks. He also expressed concerns about algorithmic bias, trustworthiness, and potential misuse or malicious use of AI systems.

The letters include a series of questions for companies developing large-scale AI models to answer, aimed at ensuring that they are taking appropriate measures to address these security risks. Among the questions are inquiries about companies' security strategies, limits on third-party access to their models that undermine the ability to evaluate model fitness, and steps taken to ensure secure and accurate data inputs and outputs. Recipients of the letter include the CEOs of OpenAI, Scale AI, Meta, Google, Apple, Stability AI, Midjourney, Anthropic, Percipient.ai, and Microsoft.

Sen. Warner, a former tech entrepreneur, has been a vocal advocate for Big Tech accountability and a stronger national posture against cyberattacks and misinformation online. He has introduced several pieces of legislation aimed at addressing these issues, including the RESTRICT Act, which would comprehensively address the ongoing threat posed by technology from foreign adversaries; the SAFE TECH Act, which would reform Section 230 and allow social media companies to be held accountable for enabling cyber-stalking, online harassment, and discrimination on social media platforms; and the Honest Ads Act, which would require online political advertisements to adhere to the same disclaimer requirements as TV, radio, and print ads.

A copy of the letters can be found here and below. 

I write today regarding the need to prioritize security in the design and development of artificial intelligence (AI) systems. As companies like yours make rapid advancements in AI, we must acknowledge the security risks inherent in this technology and ensure AI development and adoption proceeds in a responsible and secure way. While public concern about the safety and security of AI has been on the rise, I know that work on AI security is not new. However, with the increasing use of AI across large swaths of our economy, and the possibility for large language models to be steadily integrated into a range of existing systems, from healthcare to finance sectors, I see an urgent need to underscore the importance of putting security at the forefront of your work. Beyond industry commitments, however, it is also clear that some level of regulation is necessary in this field.

I recognize the important work you and your colleagues are doing to advance AI. As a leading company in this emerging technology, I believe you have a responsibility to ensure that your technology products and systems are secure. I have long advocated for incorporating security-by-design, as we have found time and again that failing to consider security early in the product development lifecycle leads to more costly and less effective security. Instead, incorporating security upfront can reduce costs and risks. Moreover, the last five years have demonstrated that the ways in which the speed, scale, and excitement associated with new technologies have frequently obscured the shortcomings of their creators in anticipating the harmful effects of their use. AI capabilities hold enormous potential; however, we must ensure that they do not advance without appropriate safeguards and regulation. 

While it is important to apply many of the same security principles we associate with traditional computing services and devices, AI presents a new set of security concerns that are distinct from traditional software vulnerabilities. Some of the AI-specific security risks that I am concerned about include the origin, quality, and accuracy of input data (data supply chain), tampering with training data (data poisoning attacks), and inputs to models that intentionally cause them to make mistakes (adversarial examples). Each of these risks further highlighting the need for secure, quality data inputs. Broadly speaking, these techniques can effectively defeat or degrade the integrity, security, or performance of an AI system (including the potential confidentiality of its training data). As leading models are increasingly integrated into larger systems, often without fully mapping dependencies and downstream implications, the effects of adversarial attacks on AI systems are only magnified.

In addition to those risks, I also have concerns regarding bias, trustworthiness, and potential misuse or malicious use of AI systems. In the last six months, we have seen open source researchers repeatedly exploit a number of prominent, publicly-accessible generative models – crafting a range of clever (and often foreseeable) prompts to easily circumvent a system’s rules. Examples include using widely-adopted models to generate malware, craft increasingly sophisticated phishing techniques, contribute to disinformation, and provide harmful information. It is imperative that we address threats to not only digital security, but also threats to physical security and political security.

In light of this, I am interested in learning about the measures that your company is taking to ensure the security of its AI systems. I request that you provide answers to the following questions no later than May 26, 2023.

Questions: 

1.     Can you provide an overview of your company’s security approach or strategy?

2.     What limits do you enforce on third-party access to your model and how do you actively monitor for non-compliant uses?

3.     Are you participating in third party (internal or external) test & evaluation, verification & validation of your systems?

4.     What steps have you taken to ensure that you have secure and accurate data inputs and outputs? Have you provided comprehensive and accurate documentation of your training data to downstream users to allow them to evaluate whether your model is appropriate for their use?

5.     Do you provide complete and accurate documentation of your model to commercial users? Which documentation standards or procedures do you rely on?

6.     What kind of input sanitization techniques do you implement to ensure that your systems are not susceptible to prompt injection techniques that pose underlying system risks?

7.     How are you monitoring and auditing your systems to detect and mitigate security breaches?

8.     Can you explain the security measures that you take to prevent unauthorized access to your systems and models?

9.     How do you protect your systems against potential breaches or cyberattacks? Do you have a plan in place to respond to a potential security incident? What is your process for alerting users that have integrated your model into downstream systems? 

10. What is your process for ensuring the privacy of sensitive or personal information you that your system uses?

11. Can you describe how your company has handled past security incidents?

12. What security standards, if any, are you adhering to? Are you using NIST’s AI Risk Management Framework?

13. Is your company participating in the development of technical standards related to AI and AI security?

14. How are you ensuring that your company continues to be knowledgeable about evolving security best practices and risks? 

15. How is your company addressing concerns about AI trustworthiness, including potential algorithmic bias and misuse or malicious use of AI?

16. Have you identified any security challenges unique to AI that you believe policymakers should address?

Thank you for your attention to these important matters and I look forward to your response. 

###

WASHINGTON – With summer just around the corner, U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-VA) has seen a steady rise in requests for assistance regarding passport applications and renewals. Many constituents are expressing frustration caused by prolonged and unexplained delays as to the status of their travel documents. Today, Sen. Warner sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken to ensure that the State Department is taking proper steps to clear the passport backlog and fulfill renewal requests.

Specifically, Sen. Warner wrote to Sec. Blinken regarding the now-closed Online Passport Renewal (OPR) System, which received more than 500,000 requests from August 2022 to February 2023. The online system has been unable to keep up with demand, leaving travelers scrambling to replace their passports at the last minute. In addition to costly delays, many constituents who filed to renew their passports online are receiving little to no information on the progress being made with applications regardless of how well in advance of planned travel their requests were filed, leaving many in limbo waiting for their documents.

“In an increasingly online age, I welcome the ability for my constituents to renew their passports through a secure paperless process,” wrote Sen. Warner. “However, the OPR system seems to be fraught with significant errors that have caused Virginians headaches, stress, and unfortunately in some instances, delayed or missed travel. Simply put, the service my constituents have received is unacceptable.”

In his letter, Sen. Warner posed a series of questions to better understand how the State Department plans to address the backlog:

  • How does the agency’s handling of passport applications submitted online differ from those that are filed through traditional processes, either by applying at a Passport Acceptance Facility in person or by U.S. Mail?
  • How does the agency determine the assignment of OPR applications to their Passport Agencies across the country? How does this compare to the assignment of traditional applications received?
  • What is the current average processing time of an application submitted through the OPR process compared to those submitted through the traditional process? Please indicate the processing time for applications submitted under both expedited and routine processing.
  • Does agency data reflect that some Passport Agencies are more successful in processing OPR applications timely than others? If so, what does the agency believe is the source of this imbalance, and how is the agency addressing this problem?
  • Members of my staff have been told by Passport Agency officials that “technical issues” can at times impede the processing of an OPR application and that officials must transfer the application into the traditional system for final processing. Can you further explain these technical issues and what steps the agency is taking to fix these issues?

Sen. Warner’s constituent casework team works daily to help Virginians with a variety of federal agency needs, including help with passport renewal. Constituents experiencing any problems with new passport applications or passport renewals through both online and traditional applications can reach out to Sen. Warner for assistance through his website, available here.

A copy of the letter can be found here and below.

Dear Secretary Blinken:

I write today to express my concern and frustration with the State Department’s Online Passport Renewal (OPR) system. 

The OPR system opened to the public in a pilot status in August 2022, and the agency reports it received more than 500,000 applications before they system closed in February 2023. During that time, many Virginians participated in utilizing this system to submit their passport renewals. Since the start of 2023, my office has received a significant increase in requests from Virginians who are experiencing considerable delays in the processing of their renewal applications filed through the OPR system prior to its closure. In many cases, my constituents filed well in advance of their travel date and paid for expedited processing. That said, the applicants still faced delays and, in some cases, ultimately needed to physically travel to a Passport Agency, often the day before their scheduled travel, in order to have their passport issued.

In an increasingly online age, I welcome the ability for my constituents to renew their passports through a secure paperless process. However, the OPR system seems to be fraught with significant errors that have caused Virginians headaches, stress, and unfortunately in some instances, delayed or missed travel. Simply put, the service my constituents have received is unacceptable. Therefore, I ask that you please address the following questions:

1.      How does the agency’s handling of passport applications submitted online differ from those that are filed through traditional processes, either by applying at a Passport Acceptance Facility in person or by U.S. Mail?
2.      How does the agency determine the assignment of OPR applications to their Passport Agencies across the country? How does this compare to the assignment of traditional applications received?
3.      What is the current average processing time of an application submitted through the OPR process compared to those submitted through the traditional process? Please indicate the processing time for applications submitted under both expedited and routine processing.
4.      Does agency data reflect that some Passport Agencies are more successful in processing OPR applications timely than others? If so, what does the agency believe is the source of this imbalance, and how is the agency addressing this problem?
5.      Members of my staff have been told by Passport Agency officials that “technical issues” can at times impede the processing of an OPR application and that officials must transfer the application into the traditional system for final processing. Can you further explain these technical issues and what steps the agency is taking to fix these issues?

My office has been told that the agency is experiencing “an unprecedented volume of early demand for passports this year.” I commend officials at Passport Agencies across the country for their tireless work in adjudicating millions of passport applications each year. However, it appears that the OPR system’s flaws are directly inhibiting this effort, and I look forward to understanding how the agency will address existing challenges and improve the system for future use.

Thank you.

Sincerely,

 

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WASHINGTON – U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner (D-VA) and Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) led more than a dozen senators from both parties in urging for the extension of a policy that allows rural hospitals to continue delivering quality care to their communities. In a letter to Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure, the senators formally requested a four-year extension of the Low Wage Index Hospital Policy, which allows hospitals in rural areas to compete for, and retain, high-quality staff by increasing reimbursements to hospitals in rural areas with lower overall wages. Without action, Medicare payments to these hospitals will reduce after September 30, 2023.

In their letter, the lawmakers pointed out that extenuating circumstances, including the COVID-19 pandemic, have not allowed for adequate evaluation of the Low Wage Index Hospital Policy. They argue that extending the policy will allow CMS to better assess its impact on the benefiting hospitals ability to recruit and retain health care staff.

“Unfortunately, due to disruptions in the marketplace caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, we have not had the opportunity to see the true impact of the Low Wage Index Hospital Policy envisioned by CMS,” the Senators wrote. “Extending the Low Wage Index Hospital Policy for four additional years will allow hospitals and the agency to better understand the policy’s true impact in a more normal environment.”

In addition to Sens. Warner and Blackburn, the letter was signed by Sens. Tim Kaine (D-VA), Tommy Tuberville (R-AL), Joe Manchin (D-WV), John Boozman (R-AR), Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), Roger Wicker (R-MS), Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-MS), Bill Hagerty (R-TN), James Lankford (R-OK), Tim Scott (R-SC), Tom Cotton (R-AR), and Katie Boyd Britt (R-AL).

Sens. Warner and Blackburn are also the lead sponsors of the Save Rural Hospitals Act, which would establish an appropriate national minimum to the Medicare Area Wage Index to ensure that rural hospitals receive fair payment for the care they provide, while preserving the existing reimbursements for urban hospitals. The legislation, which was introduced in the last several Congresses, will be reintroduced in the 118th Congress.

A copy of the letter can be found here and below.

Dear Administrator Brooks-LaSure:

Thank you for your continued commitment to ensuring all health care providers have the resources they critically need to provide quality health care to Medicare beneficiaries. We write to you regarding the Medicare hospital area wage index (AWI) in the Inpatient Prospective Payment System (IPPS). Specifically, we urge you to include a four-year extension of the Low Wage Index Hospital Policy, also known as the Lowest Quartile Adjustment (LQA) policy, in the upcoming Fiscal Year (FY) 2024 IPPS rule.

In August 2019, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) first included a four-year AWI adjustment to bottom quartile hospitals as part of the FY2020 IPPS (CMS-1716-F). At the time, CMS stated that the policy “reflected a common concern that the current wage index system perpetuates and exacerbates the disparities between high and low wage index hospitals.”[1] To address this concern, CMS increased the wage index for hospitals with a wage index value below the 25th percentile. The additional assistance has been a valuable lifeline for more than 800 hospitals in 23 states throughout FY2020, FY2021, FY2022, and now FY2023.

Unfortunately, due to disruptions in the marketplace caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, we have not had the opportunity to see the true impact of the Low Wage Index Hospital Policy envisioned by CMS. Extending the Low Wage Index Hospital Policy for four additional years will allow hospitals and the agency to better understand the policy’s true impact in a more normal environment. In its original August 2019 rule, CMS appeared to acknowledge that more time may be needed to implement the policy when it stated, “this policy will be effective for at least 4 years.” We applaud CMS for that foresight and encourage it to extend the policy for four additional years.

The continuation of this critical policy will allow hospitals to recruit and retain health care staff and protect access to care for millions of Americans.

Sincerely,

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WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner joined Sens. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Chris Murphy (D-CT) and a group of 31 colleagues in a letter urging the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to take immediate action and address short-term limited duration insurance (STLDI) plans, or junk plans, which fail to provide adequate, comprehensive health insurance coverage.

In 2018, in an effort to sabotage the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the Trump Administration made junk plans more widely available to consumers. Since then, these plans have continued to expand, however, they are not required to adhere to important standards, including prohibitions on discrimination against people with pre-existing conditions, coverage for the 10 essential health benefit (EHB) categories, and annual out-of-pocket maximums.

“Now, more than ever, the Department of Health and Human Services must act. Beginning in April, millions of Americans will likely lose the Medicaid coverage that they have relied upon during the COVID-19 pandemic. We must protect those who will be looking for coverage in the near future, and take steps to ensure that these plans are not allowed to further proliferate,” wrote the Senators. “It is past time for your Department to step up and address the expansion and proliferation of junk plans.”

In addition to Sens. Warner, Baldwin, and Murphy, the letter was signed by Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Bob Casey (D-PA), Christopher Coons (D-DE), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Richard Durbin (D-IL), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Maggie Hassan (D-NH), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), John Hickenlooper (D-CO), Timothy Kaine (D-VA), Angus King (I-ME), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Ben Ray Luján (D-NM), Edward Markey (D-MA), Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Patty Murray (D-WA), Alex Padilla (D-CA), Gary Peters (D-MI), Jack Reed (D-RI), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Tina Smith (D-MN), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Raphael Warnock (D-GA), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Peter Welch (D-VT).

Full text of the letter can be found here and below.

Dear Secretary Becerra,

As we celebrate the State of the Union and the important gains that we have made when it comes to expanding the availability of comprehensive, affordable health care coverage, we write once again to urge you to take immediate action and address short-term limited duration insurance plans, or, junk plans. Now, more than ever, the Department of Health and Human Services must act. Beginning in April, millions of Americans will likely lose the Medicaid coverage that they have relied upon during the COVID-19 pandemic. We must protect those who will be looking for coverage in the near future, and take steps to ensure that these plans are not allowed to further proliferate.

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (Families First) (P.L. 116-127) provided additional federal Medicaid funding to states during the COVID-19 public health emergency in exchange for maintaining coverage, specifically by meeting certain maintenance-of-effort requirements. These requirements barred states from lowering income eligibility levels, imposing new premiums or other barriers to enrollment, and involuntarily disenrolling individuals from their programs. According to federal data, Medicaid enrollment has increased by over 30 percent since February of 2020, an additional 19.5 million people. Congress has also worked to provide additional financial support for those who purchase ACA marketplace plans, and in August, passed the Inflation Reduction Act, which extended the additional financial support first enacted as part of the American Rescue Plan. As a result of this additional support, consumers saved an average of $800 on their premiums in 2021, and will continue to see savings through 2025.

As part of the Fiscal Year 2023 (FY23) omnibus, Congress took steps to uncouple the maintenance-of-effort requirements included in Families First from the public health emergency in order to avert both a Medicaid coverage and funding cliff. Starting on April 1, 2023, states will be able to begin conducting Medicaid eligibility redeterminations and enhanced federal funding will gradually phase out from April through December 2023. In order to receive enhanced funding during this period, states must follow all federal requirements related to redeterminations, update beneficiaries’ contact information, and use multiple methods to contact individuals when they have moved and have an out-of-date mailing address. States will also be required to submit monthly reports on unwinding, including information indicating where beneficiaries are experiencing challenges.

Congress worked to make sure that the FY23 omnibus gave state Medicaid programs a roadmap for the months ahead and enacted the Inflation Reduction Act to provide additional financial support for those enrolling in health coverage through the marketplace. It is now time for the Administration to do its job and act to protect those who will be seeking to enroll in coverage in the coming months.

According to estimates from your Department, approximately 15 million individuals will lose Medicaid or CHIP coverage in the coming year and will therefore require affordable health care coverage. Millions will be eligible for significant financial assistance to purchase comprehensive coverage on the marketplace. But without additional protections, many Americans could find themselves enrolled in junk plans that do not provide comprehensive coverage or protection for individuals with pre-existing conditions. These plans, which were actively promoted by the previous Administration and remain unchecked, are not required to comply with consumer protections that limit out-of-pocket costs or coverage of essential health benefits, including mental health services, treatment for substance-use disorder, prescription drug benefits, and maternity care. Furthermore, these plans engage in the type of discriminatory practices, such as retroactive coverage rescissions, medical underwriting, and lifetime and annual caps, which were commonplace before the Affordable Care Act.

Since President Biden took office, he has prioritized expanding access to comprehensive, affordable health coverage. Congress has supported these efforts. It is past time for your Department to step up and address the expansion and proliferation of junk plans.

Sincerely,

###

 

 

WASHINGTON – Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Mark R. Warner (D-VA) and Vice Chairman Marco Rubio (R-FL) wrote to the Biden administration to request that it expand the use of existing tools and authorities at the Departments of Treasury and Commerce to prevent China’s military industrial complex from benefiting from U.S. technology, talent and investments.

In a pair of letters, the Senators expressed concern with the flow of U.S. innovation, talent, and capital into the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which seeks to exert control over global supply chains, achieve technological superiority, and rise as the dominant economic and military power in the world. They also stress the need to utilize the authorities at the government’s disposal to protect U.S. interests and ensure that American businesses, investors, and consumers are not inadvertently advancing China’s authoritarian interests or supporting its ongoing genocide in Xinjiang and human rights abuses in Tibet and Hong Kong.

In their letter to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, the Senators wrote, “It is widely known that the PRC’s Military-Civil Fusion (MCF) program targets technological advancements in the U.S., as well as university and research partnerships with the U.S., for the PRC’s military development.  U.S. technology, talent, and capital continue to contribute—through both lawful and unlawful means, including theft—to the PRC’s development of critical military-use industries, technologies, and related supply chains. The breadth of the MCF program’s ambitions and reach creates dangerous vulnerabilities for U.S. national and economic security as well as undermines respect for democratic values globally.”

The Senators also posed a number of questions for Sec. Yellen regarding Treasury’s internal Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons (SDN) lists, which do not include a number of entities and individuals who have been identified by the U.S. Government as posing national security risks or human rights concerns.  

In their letter to Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, the Senators wrote, “Despite recent restrictions on the export of sensitive technologies critical to U.S. national security, we remain deeply concerned that American technology, investment, and talent continue to support the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC’s) military industrial complex, intelligence and security apparatus, its ongoing genocide, and other PRC efforts to displace United States economic leadership. As such, we urge the Department of Commerce to immediately use its authorities to more broadly restrict these activities.”

The Senators also requested answers from Sec. Raimondo regarding America’s most critical high-technology sectors, the Department’s ability and authority to evaluate companies’ reliance on China and assess the flow of U.S. innovation to PRC entities.  

A copy of the letter to the Department of Treasury is available here. A copy of the letter to the Department of Commerce is available here.  

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WASHINGTON — Today, U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) Chairman Mark R. Warner and Sen. Tim Kaine, a member of the Senate Armed Services (SASC) and Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC), joined Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) in a bipartisan push to fully fund the Department of Defense (DOD) office that addresses unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP) and airborne national security risks. The All-domain Anomaly Resolution Office (AARO) was created following a UAP amendment in the  Fiscal Year 2022 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to focus the DOD on resolving UAP sightings, improve data sharing between the DOD and intelligence community on UAP sightings, address national security concerns, and report health effects people may experience in relation to UAP events. AARO has access to DOD and intelligence community UAP data and is required to provide Congress with briefings and reports on UAPs. The Fiscal Year 2023 funding falls short of what AARO needs to fulfill its mission and maintain U.S. air supremacy.

“AARO provides the opportunity to integrate and resolve threats and hazards to the U.S., while also offering increased transparency to the American people and reducing the stigma around this issue of high public interest,” wrote the senators. “AARO’s success will depend on robust funding for its activities and cooperation between the Department of Defense and the Intelligence Community. As such, we respectfully request your assistance in securing the necessary funding and organizational support for AARO’s success and longevity.”

In addition to Warner, Kaine, Gillibrand, and Rubio, the letter is signed by Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Kevin Cramer (R-ND), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Mark Kelly (D-AZ), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Michael Bennet (D-CO), John Hickenlooper (D-CO), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN).

Full text of the letter is available here and below.

Dear Deputy Secretary Hicks and Deputy Director Dixon,

We write today regarding implementation of Section 1683 of the Fiscal Year 2022 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and the development of the All-domain Anomaly Resolution Office (AARO). AARO provides the opportunity to integrate and resolve threats and hazards to the U.S., while also offering increased transparency to the American people and reducing the stigma. AARO’s success will depend on robust funding for its activities and cooperation between the Department of Defense and the Intelligence Community. As such, we respectfully request your assistance in securing the necessary funding and organizational support for AARO’s success and longevity.

While we recognize there was an Administration request for funds in Fiscal Year 2023 (FY23) to fund basic operating expenses for AARO, it is facing a funding shortfall that will impede its ability to fulfill its mission. The amount outlined in the classified attachment is crucial to AARO’s scientific plan, and the lack of funding for these capabilities presents a serious impediment to AARO’s mission. We believe it is imperative for the Department of Defense to reprogram funds to cover this serious funding gap and it is for these reasons that we ask that the Department of Defense reprogram funds to prevent disruption to AARO’s work. Without FY23 funding, AARO’s ability to deliver integrated collection and analysis will fall behind schedule and be sub-optimized.

Additionally, while we understand that the Fiscal Year 2024 (FY24) Presidential Budget Request is all but finalized, we anticipate that the request will not include necessary Research, Development, Test, and Evaluations funding for FY24. While we appreciate that the Department of Defense has been vocal in expressing its support for the resolution of unidentified anomalous phenomena, this commitment must also be reflected in funding requests provided to Congress. Accordingly, we urge you to work with Congress to ensure that AARO is funded appropriately in FY24 and that robust funding is requested for FY25.

In addition to securing necessary funding, we request a briefing from your offices on your agencies’ plan to implement the dual reporting of AARO to the leadership of the Department of Defense and the Intelligence Community.  The FY23 Intelligence Authorization Act (IAA) requires that the Director of AARO report directly to the Deputy Secretary of Defense and the Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence, with administrative support provided by the Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence and Security. The briefing should cover the balance between Intelligence Community and Department of Defense involvement, including how Title 10 and Title 50 authorities will be delegated to, and exercised by, the Director of AARO. We see it as essential that AARO’s activities are not viewed or managed as solely an intelligence activity.

The FY22 and FY23 IAAs and NDAAs provided broad authorities for the resolution of unidentified anomalous phenomena across domains, demonstrating significant support for its mission from Congress. It is critical that the aspirations of AARO’s mission are met with the resources necessary to succeed.

Thank you for your consideration of this request.

Sincerely,

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WASHINGTON – As the General Services Administration (GSA) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) work to finalize a location for the new FBI headquarters, Virginia’s leaders are joining together to make the case that Springfield is the superior site.  

In a letter, the Commonwealth’s bipartisan congressional delegation and Gov. Glenn Youngkin detailed the ways in which Springfield best meets the five selection criteria set forth by the GSA and FBI, which are: support for the FBI mission requirement; transportation access; site development flexibility; promoting sustainable siting and advancing equity; and cost.

“The Springfield site presents the government with a comprehensive and holistic candidate location to house the FBI, as it performs strongly across all criteria. Springfield would provide the men and women of the FBI with a location that best enables them to meet their critical law enforcement and national security missions, allow GSA to execute that according to best practices in public real estate acquisitions, and provide the government with a strong and exciting opportunity to meet its community investment goals,” they wrote.

The letter was signed by U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine, Gov. Glenn Youngkin, and U.S. Reps. Bobby Scott, Rob Wittman, Gerry Connolly, Don Beyer, Abigail Spanberger, Jennifer Wexton, and Jen Kiggans. A full copy of the letter is available here.  

 

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WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine (both D-VA) along with Rep.  Morgan Griffith (R-VA-09) urged the Army Corps of Engineers to act quickly to finalize the Buchanan County Consolidated School Relocation Project, a project that would relocate and consolidate the existing Hurley High School and Buchanan County Career, Technology & Higher Learning Center from their existing locations in a floodplain onto one campus in Grundy, Virginia.

“The relocation of Hurley High School and the Buchanan County Career Center will provide a safe and reliable facility for the communities of Grundy and Hurley, Virginia,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter. “Recent significant rainfall events in Buchanan County have showed that time is of the essence to complete this critical consolidation and relocation project. We urge USACE to prioritize finalizing the Buchanan County School Relocation Contract as quickly as possible so this critical project can get underway.”

Due to consistent, severe flooding in Buchanan County – including two recent flooding events in 2021 and 2022 – USACE has implemented flood risk management measures in the county since the early 2000s. In August 2003, USACE approved a conceptual level Detailed Project Report package for the Buchanan County Nonstructural Project that identified Hurley High School and Buchanan County Career Center as “feasible for floodproofing by means of a ‘ringwall.’”

In 2019, the Buchanan County Nonstructural Project received significant supplemental appropriations to complete flood risk management activities pursuant to the Disaster Relief Act of 2019. Given the lapse in time, a USACE review determined that a ringwall for the high school was no longer feasible and relocation was the most viable solution. The Buchanan County Board of Education then submitted plans to relocate the career center to the same location as the high school, which was supported by a 2021 Supplemental Environmental Assessment produced by USACE.

In their letter, the lawmakers highlighted the elongated approval process, and requested quick action finalizing a project that is vital for Southwest Virginia. 

Full text of the letter is available here and below.

 Dear Assistant Secretary Connor:

We write today concerning the Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Consolidated School Relocation Project, which is part of the Buchanan County Section 202 Nonstructural Flood Damage Reduction Project. The purpose of this project is to relocate and consolidate the existing Hurley High School and Buchanan County Career, Technology & Higher Learning Center from their existing locations in a floodplain onto one campus in Grundy, Virginia. We respectfully request that USACE act swiftly to finalize the Buchanan County Consolidated School Relocation Project, which is essential for our constituents in Southwest Virginia.

Over the decades, the community of Buchanan County has faced a number of severe flooding events – including two recent significant rainfall events in 2021 and 2022 that resulted in Major Disaster Declarations. As a result of these recurring flooding events, USACE has implemented flood risk management measures in Buchanan County since the early 2000s. In August 2003, USACE approved a conceptual/feasibility level Detailed Project Report package for the Buchanan County Nonstructural Project that identified Hurley High School and Buchanan County Career Center as “feasible for floodproofing by means of a ‘ringwall.’”

In 2019, the Buchanan County Nonstructural Project received significant supplemental appropriations to complete flood risk management activities pursuant to the Disaster Relief Act of 2019. Given the lapse of time, USACE was able to examine the feasibility of onsite nonstructural flood protection for Hurley High School and the Buchanan County Career Center. Following this review, USACE determined that the nonstructural floodproofing options for the high school were not feasible and converting to the nonstructural measure of acquisition by relocation was the most viable solution for providing flood protection. Although the ringwall was confirmed feasible for the career center, the Buchanan County Board of Education submitted alternative plans to relocate the career center to the same location as the high school, which was supported by a 2021 Supplemental Environmental Assessment produced by USACE.

It is our understanding that the Great Lakes & Ohio River Division transmitted the Draft Consolidated School Relocation Agreement Contract to USACE headquarters on October 26, 2022 for review and comment. At the request of USACE headquarters, we understand the Huntington District Office drafted a Letter Report and detailed responses to comments and questions posed by USACE headquarters intended to supplement the 2003 Detailed Project Report and document the considerations leading to the updated decision to achieve the most cost effective and implementable plan. We understand the Letter Report and additional materials were transmitted to the Great Lakes & Ohio River Division for review on January 13, 2023, approved, and then transmitted to USACE headquarters on January 23, 2023 for final review. It is now our understanding that USACE headquarters is in the final stages of reviewing the Buchanan County Consolidated School Relocation Contract.

The relocation of Hurley High School and the Buchanan County Career Center will provide a safe and reliable facility for the communities of Grundy and Hurley, Virginia. Recent significant rainfall events in Buchanan County have showed that time is of the essence to complete this critical consolidation and relocation project. We urge USACE to prioritize finalizing the Buchanan County School Relocation Contract as quickly as possible so this critical project can get underway.

Thank you for your attention to this matter. We look forward to working with USACE to advance this important project for Buchanan County, Virginia.

Sincerely,

 

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WASHINGTON – U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner joined Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) and a bipartisan group of colleagues in sending a letter to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack, urging the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) to take swift action to address the ongoing outbreak of avian influenza by quickly disseminating funds provided by Congress in the Fiscal Year 2023 Agriculture Appropriations bill, which was signed into law by President Biden in December.

“This unprecedented outbreak, which has been on-going since February 2022, is devastating poultry flocks across the country and contributing to an increase in poultry and egg prices for consumers,” the Senators wrote. “We acknowledge APHIS’s current efforts to address the spread of the disease. However, it is imperative the agency quickly deploy additional resources and work with the states in improving biosecurity measures within the avian supply chain, including the disinfection of sites and the testing and quarantining of affected flocks.”

As of January 31, 2023, APHIS confirmed avian flu had been found in 745 flocks in 47 states including Virginia, and affected over 58 million birds, directly contributing to rising egg prices. In the Fiscal Year 2023 Omnibus Appropriations Act signed into law late last year, Congress provided an increase in annual funding to address the avian influenza outbreak, including over $64 million for improving avian health, and updated guidance on proactively mitigating the spread of disease. Additionally, Congress directed APHIS to increase outreach and engagement with poultry producers to educate them on how to proactively halt further spread.

“We request the agency expeditiously utilize the increase in annual funding provided by Congress for activities to prevent further spread of the avian influenza and to mitigate the impact this historic wave of disease has had on our states’ farmers and consumers,” the Senators continued.

In addition to Sens. Warner and Baldwin, the letter was signed by Sens. John Boozman (R-AR), Tom Carper (D-DE), Bob Casey (D-PA), Chris Coons (D-DE), Tom Cotton (R-AR), and Roger Wicker (R-MS).

Full text of the letter is available here and below.

Dear Secretary Vilsack,

We are writing to request the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) swiftly take further action to address the ongoing outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI). This unprecedented outbreak, which has been on-going since February 2022, is devastating poultry flocks across the country and contributing to an increase in poultry and egg prices for consumers.

As of January 31, 2023, APHIS has confirmed HPAI in 745 flocks in 47 states that is affecting over 58 million birds. As a direct result, retail egg prices have more than doubled and contributed to the highest grocery price inflation in nearly 5 decades. We acknowledge APHIS’s current efforts to address the spread of the disease. However, it is imperative the agency quickly deploy additional resources and work with the states in improving biosecurity measures within the avian supply chain, including the disinfection of sites and the testing and quarantining of affected flocks.

In the Fiscal Year 2023 Omnibus Appropriations Act, Congress provided over $64 million for improving avian health and included guidance directing APHIS to coordinate proactively with state animal health officials to mitigate the spread of HPAI. In addition, Congress directed APHIS to increase outreach and engagement with poultry producers to educate on proactive measures they can take to mitigate the spread of the virus.

We request the agency expeditiously utilize the increase in annual funding provided by Congress for activities to prevent further spread of the avian influenza and to mitigate the impact this historic wave of disease has had on our states’ farmers and consumers. In addition, we request an update on recent HPAI detections, geographic regions where HPAI is most highly concentrated, and an update on depopulation efforts and indemnity payments. Thank you for your attention to this matter.

Sincerely,

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WASHINGTON — Today, U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine urged the Virginia General Assembly to protect marriage equality by repealing the ban on same-sex marriage that remains in Virginia’s constitution. In 2006, over then-Governor Kaine’s strong objection, Virginia passed a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, but the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges overrides Virginia’s ban by requiring all states to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. While Sens. Warner and Kaine helped pass legislation last year to ensure same-sex marriages are recognized by every state, the right of same-sex couples to marry in Virginia would be jeopardized by the state ban if Obergefell is overturned.

“We write today to urge you to take action to protect marriage equality. The General Assembly should act now to repeal the shameful ban on same-sex marriage that remains in the state constitution,” the senators wrote in a letter to General Assembly leadership.

The senators continued, “It is long past time that Virginia’s governing document conveys to same-sex marriages the same freedoms, rights, and responsibilities that are afforded to all other constitutional marriages. We urge you to work with your colleagues to advance legislation for a referendum that would fully protect Virginia’s LGBTQ couples.”

Amendments to Virginia’s constitution must pass both chambers of the General Assembly in two consecutive sessions and then be passed on the ballot by voters. Constitutional amendments cannot be vetoed by a Governor. The Virginia Senate passed a bill to repeal the state constitutional ban in the 2022 session, but that bill failed in the Virginia House of Delegates, restarting the amendment process. On January 31, 2023, the Virginia Senate Privileges and Elections Committee favorably reported a similar bill to repeal the ban.

In the U.S. Senate, Warner and Kaine were among the 212 members of Congress who signed an amicus brief arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court that same-sex married couples should have the same legal security, rights, and responsibilities that federal law provides all other married couples. Warner and Kaine have also cosponsored the Equality Act, which would amend federal civil rights laws to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in education, employment, housing, credit, and federal jury service.

Full text of the letter is available here and below.

Dear Leaders Saslaw, Norment, Kilgore, and Scott:

We write today to urge you to take action to protect marriage equality. The General Assembly should act now to repeal the shameful ban on same-sex marriage that remains in the state constitution.

Marriage is a sacred and fundamental right in our society. In a long-overdue victory for the LGBTQ community, the Supreme Court concluded in Obergefell v. Hodges that the 14th Amendment requires states to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, bringing the country one step closer to the fundamental ideal of equality for all.  We were proud to cosponsor and support the passage of the Respect for Marriage Act in the Senate. On December 13, 2022, President Biden signed the Respect for Marriage Act into law, ensuring that same-sex and interracial couples lawfully married in any state will have their marriages recognized across the country even if Obergefell is overturned.  Although the Respect for Marriage Act provides full faith and credit for state-issued marriage licenses, the legislation does not require a state to issue a marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

While the Obergefell decision supersedes Virginia’s constitutional ban, the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health makes same-sex couples feel that their marriages are in jeopardy. In fact, Justice Clarence Thomas stated in his concurring opinion that “in future cases, we should reconsider all of this Court’s substantive due process precedents, including Griswold, Lawrence, and Obergefell.”  If Obergefell is overturned, then LGBTQ Virginians will likely lose the right to marry the person they love unless the General Assembly repeals the ban in Virginia’s constitution. Virginia’s circuit courts would be prohibited from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples due to the prohibition in the Commonwealth’s constitution.

We are encouraged by proposals in both the Virginia House of Delegates and Senate to repeal the constitutional provision. It is long past time that Virginia’s governing document conveys to same-sex marriages the same freedoms, rights, and responsibilities that are afforded to all other constitutional marriages. We urge you to work with your colleagues to advance legislation for a referendum that would fully protect Virginia’s LGBTQ couples.

Thank you for your continued leadership and service to the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Sincerely,

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WASHINGTON – Today, Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Mark Warner (D-VA) and Vice Chairman Marco Rubio (R-FL) wrote to Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, questioning the company about recently released documents revealing that the company knew, as early as 2018, that hundreds of thousands of developers in what Facebook classified as “high-risk jurisdictions” including the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Russia had access to user data that could have been used to facilitate espionage. The documents were released as part of ongoing litigation against the company related to its lax handling of personal data after revelations regarding Cambridge Analytica.

Under pressure from Congress, Facebook revealed in 2018 that it provided access to key application programming interfaces (APIs) to device-makers based in the PRC, including Huawei, OPPO, TCL, and others. In the wake of those disclosures, Facebook met repeatedly with the staffs of both senators and the Senate Intelligence Committee to discuss access to this data and what controls Facebook was putting in place to protect user data in the future.

Wrote the bipartisan leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee in today’s letter, “Given those discussions, we were startled to learn recently, as a result of this ongoing litigation and discovery, that Facebook had concluded that a much wider range of foreign-based developers, in addition to the PRC-based device-makers, also had access to this data. According to at least one internal document, this included nearly 90,000 separate developers in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which is especially remarkable given that Facebook has never been permitted to operate in the PRC.  The document also refers to discovery of more than 42,000 developers in Russia, and thousands of developers in other ‘high-risk jurisdictions,’ including Iran and North Korea, that had access to this user information.”

The newly available documents reveal that Facebook internally acknowledged in 2018 that this access could  be used for espionage purposes.

“As the Chairman and Vice Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, we have grave concerns about the extent to which this access could have enabled foreign intelligence service activity, ranging from foreign malign influence to targeting and counter-intelligence activity,” wrote Warner and Rubio, posing a series of questions to the company about the implications of the access, including:

1)      The unsealed document notes that Facebook conducted separate reviews on developers based in the PRC and Russia “given the risk associated with those countries.” What additional reviews were conducted on these developers? When was this additional review completed and what were the primary conclusions? What percentage of the developers located in the PRC and Russia was Facebook able to definitively identify?  What communications, if any, has Facebook had with these developers since its initial identification? What criteria does Facebook use to evaluate the “risk associated with” operation in the PRC and Russia?

2)      For the developers identified as being located within the PRC and Russia, please provide a full list of the types of information to which these developers had access, as well as the timeframes associated with such access.

3)      Does Facebook have comprehensive logs on the frequency with which developers from high-risk jurisdictions accessed its APIs and the forms of data accessed?

4)      Please provide an estimate of the number of discrete Facebook users in the United States whose data was shared with a developer located in the each country identified as a “high-risk jurisdiction” (broken out by country).

5)      The internal document indicates that Facebook would establish a framework to identify the “developers and apps determined to be most potentially risky[.]” How did Facebook establish this rubric? How many developers and apps based in the PRC and Russia met this threshold? How many developers and apps in other high-risk jurisdictions met this threshold? What were the specific characteristics of these developers that gave rise to this determination? Did Facebook identify any developers as too risky to safely operate with? If so, which?

6)      The internal document references your public commitment to “conduct a full audit of any app with suspicious activity.” How does Facebook characterize “suspicious activity” and how many apps triggered this full audit process? 

7)      Does Facebook have any indication that any developers’ access enabled coordinated inauthentic activity, targeting activity, or any other malign behavior by foreign governments?

8)      Does Facebook have any indication that developers’ access enabled malicious advertising or other fraudulent activity by foreign actors, as revealed in public reporting? 

The full of today’s letter is available here and below.

Dear Mr. Zuckerberg,

We write you with regard to recently unsealed documents in connection with pending litigation your company, Meta, is engaged in. It appears from these documents that Facebook has known, since at least September 2018, that hundreds of thousands of developers in countries Facebook characterized as “high-risk,” including the People’s Republic of China (PRC), had access to significant amounts of sensitive user data. As leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee, we write today with a number of questions regarding these documents and the extent to which developers in these countries were granted access to American user data. 

In 2018, the New York Times revealed that Facebook had provided privileged access to key application programming interfaces (APIs) to Huawei, OPPO, TCL, and other device-makers based in the PRC.  Under the terms of agreements with Facebook dating back to at least 2010, these device manufacturers were permitted to access a wealth of information on Facebook’s users, including profile data, user IDs, photos, as well as contact information and even private messages.  In the wake of these revelations, as well as broader revelations concerning Facebook’s lax data security policies related to third-party applications, our staffs held numerous meetings with representatives from your company, including with senior executives, to discuss who had access to this data and what controls Facebook was putting in place to protect user data in the future.

Given those discussions, we were startled to learn recently, as a result of this ongoing litigation and discovery, that Facebook had concluded that a much wider range of foreign-based developers, in addition to the PRC-based device-makers, also had access to this data. According to at least one internal document, this included nearly 90,000 separate developers in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which is especially remarkable given that Facebook has never been permitted to operate in the PRC.  The document also refers to discovery of more than 42,000 developers in Russia, and thousands of developers in other “high-risk jurisdictions,” including Iran and North Korea, that had access to this user information.

As Facebook’s own internal materials note, those jurisdictions “may be governed by potentially risky data storage and disclosure rules or be more likely to house malicious actors,” including “states known to collect data for intelligence targeting and cyber espionage.”  As the Chairman and Vice Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, we have grave concerns about the extent to which this access could have enabled foreign intelligence service activity, ranging from foreign malign influence to targeting and counter-intelligence activity. 

In light of these revelations, we request answers to the following questions on the findings of Facebook’s internal investigation:

1) The unsealed document notes that Facebook conducted separate reviews on developers based in the PRC and Russia “given the risk associated with those countries.”

  • What additional reviews were conducted on these developers?
  • When was this additional review completed and what were the primary conclusions?
  • What percentage of the developers located in the PRC and Russia was Facebook able to definitively identify?
  • What communications, if any, has Facebook had with these developers since its initial identification?
  • What criteria does Facebook use to evaluate the “risk associated with” operation in the PRC and Russia?

2) For the developers identified as being located within the PRC and Russia, please provide a full list of the types of information to which these developers had access, as well as the timeframes associated with such access.

3) Does Facebook have comprehensive logs on the frequency with which developers from high-risk jurisdictions accessed its APIs and the forms of data accessed?

4) Please provide an estimate of the number of discrete Facebook users in the United States whose data was shared with a developer located in the each country identified as a “high-risk jurisdiction” (broken out by country).

5) The internal document indicates that Facebook would establish a framework to identify the “developers and apps determined to be most potentially risky[.]”

  • How did Facebook establish this rubric?
  • How many developers and apps based in the PRC and Russia met this threshold? How many developers and apps in other high-risk jurisdictions met this threshold?
  • What were the specific characteristics of these developers that gave rise to this determination?
  • Did Facebook identify any developers as too risky to safely operate with? If so, which?

6) The internal document references your public commitment to “conduct a full audit of any app with suspicious activity.”

  • How does Facebook characterize “suspicious activity” and how many apps triggered this full audit process? 

7) Does Facebook have any indication that any developers’ access enabled coordinated inauthentic activity, targeting activity, or any other malign behavior by foreign governments?

8) Does Facebook have any indication that developers’ access enabled malicious advertising or other fraudulent activity by foreign actors, as revealed in public reporting? 

Thank you for your prompt attention.

 

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WASHINGTON – Ahead of a key deadline today, U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-VA) is calling attention to a challenge submitted by the Virginia Office of Broadband to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), pointing to a significant number of locations in Virginia that are currently incorrectly reported on the most recent FCC broadband coverage map.

In November, after a sustained push from Sen. Warner, the FCC released a new map with their best estimates of broadband coverage across the country. Once finalized, the FCC map will help determine how broadband funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), the bipartisan infrastructure law negotiated and written by Sen. Warner, will be allocated to states. Sen. Warner asked Virginians to review the released draft map to ensure it accurately reflected current broadband conditions at their address, and encouraged residents submit a challenge to the FCC if the information was incorrect. Virginians must submit their challenges by today, January 13, 2023 to ensure that they are adjudicated prior to the allocation of IIJA funding.

In addition to individual challenges submitted, the Virginia Office of Broadband has submitted a bulk challenge of locations currently reported as served but found to be unserved, based on the office’s analysis. In a letter to FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, Sen. Warner highlighted the need for the map to accurately reflect the current state of broadband coverage in Virginia and asked the FCC to carefully consider Virginia’s submitted challenges.

“In partnership with Virginia Tech, the Virginia Office of Broadband found that there are approximately 358,000 locations in Virginia that are reported on the new map as being served when, in fact, they currently lack access to broadband. Given that the funding provided to states by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act’s Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program is calculated based on the number of unserved locations in each state, it’s important that the number of unserved locations is accurately calculated,” Sen. Warner wrote in the letter. “I hope that you will carefully review the challenges submitted by individual Virginians as well as the bulk challenge submitted by the Virginia Office of Broadband. I appreciate your attention to this important issue and thank you for your efforts to close the digital divide.”   

Regarding Virginia’s submitted challenges, Dr. Tamarah Holmes, Director of the Office of Broadband at the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, said today, “The number of locations in Virginia the FCC thinks are unserved directly affects the amount of money Virginia will receive under BEAD. We plan to challenge hundreds of thousands of locations we believe are incorrectly reported as served in the FCC's map, potentially securing additional funding for Virginia and allowing the Commonwealth to achieve universal access in Virginia.”

Sen. Warner has long fought to expand access to broadband in Virginia. During negotiations for the bipartisan infrastructure law, Sen. Warner secured $65 billion in funding to help deploy broadband, increase access, and decrease costs associated with connecting to the internet. The Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program, created and funded through this landmark legislation, provides $42.45 billion to expand high-speed internet access by funding planning, infrastructure deployment and adoption programs in all states and territories. An accurate map will play a critical role in ensuring that this funding is used efficiently.

 

A copy of the letter is available here and below.

Dear Chairwoman Rosenworcel,

I write today to urge the Federal Communications Commission to give all due consideration to the challenges to the FCC’s new national broadband map submitted by the Virginia Office of Broadband. Ensuring that the new map is as accurate as possible is critically important to closing the digital divide and providing access to affordable, reliable broadband to every single American.

In 2021, I was proud to help negotiate the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which provides $65 billion to increase broadband availability and affordability across the United States. In order to ensure that funding is spent effectively, Congress determined that the allocation of broadband funding should be based on the new FCC map created as a result of the Broadband DATA Act. That legislation required the FCC to change how it maps broadband access, providing more granular, location-specific information instead of the previous map’s census-block level data. This endeavor is incredibly complex, and I appreciate the efforts of you, your colleagues, and the FCC staff to develop this new map.

As you have said, the success of this effort depends on stakeholder engagement. To that end, I have encouraged Virginians to review the new map and submit location and availability challenges if they believe information is incorrect. Furthermore, the Virginia Office of Broadband has been conducting their own analysis of the new map. In partnership with Virginia Tech, the Virginia Office of Broadband found that there are approximately 358,000 locations in Virginia that are reported on the new map as being served when, in fact, they currently lack access to broadband.

Given that the funding provided to states by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act’s Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program is calculated based on the number of unserved locations in each state, it’s important that the number of unserved locations is accurately calculated. I hope that you will carefully review the challenges submitted by individual Virginians as well as the bulk challenge submitted by the Virginia Office of Broadband. I appreciate your attention to this important issue and thank you for your efforts to close the digital divide.

            Sincerely,

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