Once dead, twice billed: GAO questions COVID funeral awards
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. According to the report, this amounts to approximately $4.8 million in assistance that could be fraudulent or improper payments.
FEMA spokesperson Jaclyn Rotenberg stated Wednesday that this was not a case of large-scale fraud. The amount of funeral assistance considered at-risk was small due to FEMA’s “multilayered internal quality control and fraud controls,” which resulted in improper payments of less then 1%.
“Unfortunately, fraud, particularly identity theft, is common. Rothenberg stated that FEMA has the controls in place to detect fraud and can and will pursue anyone who applies for assistance fraudulently.
FEMA informed the GAO that some duplicate applications were incorrectly granted funeral assistance. This was not due to fraud but processing errors. In some cases benefits were not actually paid twice, the report stated.
The cases were sent to the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General for consideration about whether to open fraud investigations. Chris Currie, who heads GAO’s emergency management and disaster response work, and Rebecca Shea, responsible for GAO audits to detect fraud, waste, and abuse, said that they had received the cases.
Shea stated that they were unable to confirm whether FEMA paid twice in any of the cases. She stated that fraudsters may have targeted the fund, and some of it was data entry errors.
” “Given all that we have seen in the pandemic programmes over the past two year, it would be surprising to my to see fraudsters not trying to gain from the system,” she stated 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. The GAO stated that the duplicates represent less than.2% of the applications. However, the GAO believes the findings are significant because of the possibility of fraud and improper payments in this disaster and other 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. FEMA was provided with three examples by the GAO. FEMA stated that there were processing errors and began trying to recover the money in two cases in January.
About 50 deceased individuals were listed on multiple applications from the same applicant, the report said. FEMA initially stated that there were duplicates due to a change of geographic coding. Only one application was paid in each case. However, FEMA received examples from the GAO, which confirmed that the duplicative applications had been paid.
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. According to the GAO, there were thousands of awards for cases where FEMA had not provided the correct data. Shea stated that sometimes a deceased person was listed as an applicant. Sometimes, the date for the decedent was prior to the pandemic. This raises questions about how FEMA determines eligibility in these cases.
“This shouldn’t be happening,” Shea stated. “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. FEMA requires verification of funeral expenses, including receipts and contracts for funeral homes, and conducts multiple verification checks.
McDermott reported from Providence, R.I.
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