Once dead, twice billed: GAO questions COVID funeral awards

Apr 27, 2022, 12:30 PM | Updated: 9:31 pm
FILE - A portable cot, with the Federal Emergency Management Agency logo FEMA printed on the backre...

FILE - A portable cot, with the Federal Emergency Management Agency logo FEMA printed on the backrest, and other cots line the basketball court at a makeshift medical facility in a gymnasium at Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester, N.H., March 24, 2020. FEMA may have been double-billed for the funerals of hundreds of people who died of COVID-19, the Government Accountability Office said in a new report Wednesday, April 27, 2022. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)

(AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)

The Federal Emergency Management Agency may have been double-billed for the funerals of hundreds of people who died of COVID-19, the Government Accountability Office said in a new report Wednesday.

The GAO identified 374 people who died and were listed on more than one application that received an award from the COVID-19 Funeral Assistance fund. That amounts to about $4.8 million in assistance that could have been improper or potentially fraudulent payments, the report said.

FEMA spokesperson Jaclyn Rothenberg said Wednesday that this was not an example of large-scale fraud and the amount of funeral assistance identified as at-risk was relatively small, with FEMA’s “multi-layered internal quality controls and fraud controls” resulting in improper payments of less than 1%.

“Unfortunately, fraud, particularly identity theft, is common. FEMA has controls in place to detect instances and can and will prosecute anyone who would apply for assistance fraudulently,” Rothenberg said in a statement.

FEMA told the GAO that some duplicative applications were incorrectly awarded funeral assistance due to processing errors, not fraud, and benefits were not actually paid twice in some of the cases, the report said.

The cases have been sent to the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General to consider whether to launch any fraud investigations, said Chris Currie, who leads GAO’s work on emergency management and disaster response and recovery, and Rebecca Shea, who oversees GAO audits to identify fraud, waste and abuse.

Shea said they could not confirm whether FEMA did or did not pay twice in all of the cases. She said she thinks fraudsters likely targeted the fund and some of it is data entry mistakes.

“Given everything we’ve seen in the pandemic programs over the past two years, if fraudsters did not try to gain from this system, that would be surprising to me,” she said Wednesday.

As of late last year, FEMA had awarded about $1.5 billion in assistance in response to about 235,000 applications for nearly 237,000 people who died due to COVID-19, the report said. While the duplicates are less than .2% of those applications, the GAO said the findings are significant due to the possibility of improper payments and potential fraud in this disaster and future disasters.

There were only about 6,000 applications for funeral assistance after other disasters in the decade before the pandemic. Use of the program “exploded” since Congress expanded it for COVID-19 by making the $50 billion in the Disaster Relief Fund available for such assistance, prompting GAO to do a forensic audit, Currie said.

FEMA said Wednesday that it has now awarded more than $2.1 billion to more than 355,000 recipients.

Most of the 374 deceased individuals identified on more than one application were listed by different applicants, the GAO said. The GAO provided three examples to FEMA. FEMA said there were processing errors and started trying to recoup the money in two of the cases in January, the report said.

About 50 deceased individuals were listed on multiple applications from the same applicant, the report said. FEMA initially said there were duplicates in the system due to a change in geographic coding and only one of the applications was paid in each case, but when the GAO provided examples, FEMA confirmed the duplicative applications were paid, the report said.

In addition, the GAO said it identified another 400 applications that received more than the maximum benefit of $9,000 for each person who died — some up to nearly $20,000 — for another roughly $4.7 million in assistance that could’ve been improper or potentially fraudulent payments.

There were thousands of awards given in instances where there was a missing or invalid death date according to the data that FEMA provided, the GAO said. Sometimes a deceased person was listed as the applicant or the date listed for the decedent was before the pandemic started, raising questions about how FEMA determined eligibility in those cases, Shea said.

“That shouldn’t be happening,” she said. “You know, dead can’t apply for benefits.”

The GAO is recommending FEMA put additional controls in place to prevent and detect improper payments and potential fraud, and address deficiencies in the data by updating records as data is verified and adding data fields where necessary.

Rothenberg said FEMA established additional controls prior to implementing COVID-19 Funeral Assistance to mitigate the risk of fraud and identity theft. She said FEMA requires verifiable documentation for funeral expenses, including funeral home contracts and receipts, and conducts multiple verification checks.

___

McDermott reported from Providence, R.I.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

AP

In this photo released by the Longmont Police Department the Life Choices building in Longmont, Col...
Associated Press

Police investigating fire at Colorado pregnancy center

LONGMONT, Colo. (AP) — A weekend fire at a Christian pregnancy center in north-central Colorado is being investigated as a possible arson, police in Longmont said. The fire at Life Choices was reported at 3:17 a.m. Saturday, hours after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and said abortion laws would be decided by […]
19 hours ago
The Very Rev. Kris Stubna, rector of St. Paul Cathedral Parish, preaches on the topic of abortion a...
Associated Press

After Roe’s demise, clergy lead faithful in praise, laments

Praise and lament for the overturning of abortion rights filled sacred spaces this weekend as clergy across the U.S. rearranged worship plans or rewrote sermons to provide their religious context — and competing messages — about the historic moment. Abortion is a visceral issue for deeply divided religious Americans. Some are sad or angry in […]
19 hours ago
Associated Press

Poisonous bite leads German police to farm with 110 snakes

BERLIN (AP) — Police in Germany said Sunday they discovered more than 110 dangerous snakes on a farm after a woman who lived there sought medical treatment for a poisonous bite. The 35-year-old woman drove to a hospital in Salzgitter, near Hannover, early Sunday and told doctors there that one of her rattlesnakes bit her […]
19 hours ago
Associated Press

Average US gasoline price drops 4 cents to $5.05 per gallon

CAMARILLO, Calif. (AP) — The average U.S. price of regular-grade gasoline fell by 4 cents per gallon in the past two weeks to $5.05 for regular grade, it was reported Sunday. It was the first drop in nine weeks and came with a drop in oil prices amid deepening global inflation fears, industry analyst Trilby […]
19 hours ago
Associated Press

Newspaper: Oklahoma gun deaths rose as firearms access grew

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Gun deaths in Oklahoma have increased since a “permitless carry” law allowing people over the age of 21 to carry a gun without a permit or training went into effect in 2019, according to a newspaper’s review of data. The Oklahoman analyzed state medical examiner data and found that Oklahoma has […]
19 hours ago
FILE - Bosnian Serb member of the tripartite Presidency of Bosnia Milorad Dodik watches military ex...
Associated Press

Bosnian Serb leader prays for Trump’s return, praises Putin

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) — The leader of Bosnia’s Serbs said Sunday he hoped former U.S. President Donald Trump would return to power and that the Serbs would “wait for appropriate global circumstances” to reach for their goal of seceding from Bosnia, which he called an “unsustainable state.” Milorad Dodik, who was a rare European official […]
19 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

...
Christina O’Haver

BE FAST to spot a stroke

Every 40 seconds—that’s how often someone has a stroke in the United States. It’s the fifth leading cause of death among Americans, with someone dying of a stroke every 3.5 minutes.
...
Arizona Division of Problem Gambling

Arizona Division of Problem Gambling provides exclusion solution for young sports bettors

Sports betting in Arizona opened a new world to young adults, one where putting down money on games was as easy as sending a text message.
...
Canvas Annuity

The secret to guaranteed retirement income

Annuities aren’t really a secret, but they are so misunderstood that they might as well be. Once you understand what an annuity is and how it can benefit you, you could decide this “secret” is the perfect supplement to your retirement plan.
Once dead, twice billed: GAO questions COVID funeral awards