November 4, 2013

A living wage for the dead? Costly flaws plague U.S. system

In the past few years, Social Security paid $133 million to beneficiaries who were deceased.

By David A. Fahrenthold
The Washington Post

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But, somehow, they still get paid.

“Not to speak ill of the dead, but they’re the least deserving of federal payments,” said Steve Ellis of the group Taxpayers for Common Sense. This is real money: Payments to the dead in recent years have totaled more than the annual budget of the Library of Congress. But the situation doesn’t get fixed, Ellis said, because the cost is spread among all taxpayers – too wide and too thin to make anybody very mad.

“In the end, it’s not enough money. And it’s not enough of an issue to get people rallied around,” he said.

The trouble with dead people often begins with something called the Death Master File, which is kept by the Social Security Administration. Every day new reports are added, provided by relatives, funeral homes and the state agencies that issue official death certificates.

The list contains 90 million reports.

The problem is that not all of them are correct.

This is the flaw at the center of the system. A task that requires near-perfection – maintaining the death records used by agencies across Washington – has fallen, by default, to an agency that does not believe perfection is its job.

Instead, Social Security officials say, they maintain the list for their own narrower purpose – to stop dead people from receiving Social Security benefits. If a death is reported and the person wasn’t getting Social Security payments (because, for example, he or she was too young), the agency doesn’t verify that the report is correct.

But it does put the report into the master file, which is shared with other agencies.

Every month, according to the Social Security Administration, at least 750 living Americans are wrongly put into the Death Master File. The process of getting off the list is known as “resurrection” or “un-deading,” in the slang of agency workers.

“Nobody told me to do this. I just thought about it: I should just take my dad into the Social Security office here in Provo. Just show him in the flesh, just to show . . . he’s alive,” said David Cleveland of Santaquin, Utah.

This past summer, Cleveland’s mother died. For some reason, the federal government got the message that his father, Leonard Cleveland, 78, was dead instead.

“You need to write on this piece of paper that ‘I’m alive,’ “ he recalled the clerks in Provo saying. His father did, and signed it. They went home.

But that didn’t fix it. So they went back to Provo.

“This time, he had to write another sentence . . . ‘I’m alive, I showed my driver’s license,’ “ David Cleveland said. That didn’t work, either. It took the intervention of Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, to get the records fixed.

IMPROVING THE SYSTEM

In other places around Washington, there are similar glitches that make the dead look alive. At several agencies, officials aren’t even allowed to look at the complete Death Master File. Because of rules limiting how widely death data from states can be shared, the Social Security Administration limits the full list to a handful of large benefit-paying agencies.

Other agencies get a shorter list, which can leave out up to 40 percent of the death reports.

“Apparently we’ve been getting the less-full one since we started this, back in late 2006,” said Jim Baxa, an official at the Agriculture Department who oversees farm subsidy payments. His agency was trying to stop dead farmers from being paid, but officials learned that the list they got was incomplete.

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