Once dead, twice billed: GAO questions COVID funeral awards

Jennifer McDermott
Associated Press

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 the 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.

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 they died was before the pandemic started, raising questions about how FEMA could determine 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.