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Pursuant to the request of a congressional committee which is considering legislative action regarding the National Library of Medicine's (NLM) recovery of costs through user charges, the GAO provided information on the provision of information products and services by NLM through its Medical Literature Analysis and Retrieval System (MEDLARS) and the related Index Medicus publications.
Office of Management and Budget Circular No. A-25 requires that Federal agencies recover the full costs of services provided except when the recipient is engaging in a nonprofit activity for public safety, health, or welfare or when the payment of full costs would not be in the best interest of the program.
The current NLM user-charge policy requires that all users, regardless of type, pay the full costs of accessing the MEDLARS data bases. Costs associated with generating and maintaining the MEDLARS data bases are absorbed by NML as part of its responsibility as a library. The vast majority of users of the MEDLARS data bases have been excluded by NLM from the full cost-recovery requirement because the public benefits from their use of MEDLARS. However, a number of the data base users are non-health professionals whose use of MEDLARS may not be directly related to the public good. These users should be charged fees sufficient to recover full costs. Based on the user charges in effect in fiscal year 1981, NLM recovered about 72 percent of the MEDLARS-related accessing costs and 44 percent of the total MEDLARS-related costs. NLM would have recovered about 95 percent of its accessing costs and 58 percent of the total MEDLARS-related costs in 1981 had its current policy and user charges been in effect.
Overall, the methods used by NLM to identify and allocate costs to MEDLARS-related activities were reasonable. However, the computer time and printed page costs were understated which resulted in an understatement of the charges imposed on users of the system.
The GAO recommends that the Director of the National Library of Medicine should assess charges which would recover the full costs of providing services to those users not directly involved in health-related activities. The Director of the National Library of Medicine should establish procedures to account for the computer time and off-line printed pages Library staff use to maintain and update the Medical Literature Analysis and Retrieval System for use in future calculations. The Director of the National Library of Medicine should recalculate the 1982 user charges by excluding the time and pages used by the Library to update and maintain the Medical Literature Analysis and Retrieval System.