The Corner

Dead Wrong

Zombies are richer than you’d think. The Washington Post has an excellent report on how the dead continue to collect government benefits:

In the past few years, Social Security paid $133 million to beneficiaries who were deceased. The federal employee retirement system paid more than $400 million to retirees who had passed away. And an aid program spent $3.9 million in federal money to pay heating and air-conditioning bills for more than 11,000 of the dead.

… In fact, glitches in the [official] system have paid out more than $700 million to the dead, according to government audits performed since 2008.

The latest mistakes were revealed last week. In 2011 alone, auditors found, Medicare paid $23 million for services “provided” to dead people. From 2009 to 2011, it spent $8.2 million on medical equipment “prescribed” by doctors who had been dead for at least a year.

As the Post reports, the dead become expensive in two ways: “Millions of dollars pile up in unwatched accounts. Millions more are spent by feckless relatives.” The fraud can be as creative as it is macabre; I’ve written before about some of the more bizarre cases.

The problem is that most agencies rely on the Social Security administration’s Death Master File to figure out who’s deceased and who’s still living. But as I’ve reported:

The SSA has few measures in place to verify whether a beneficiary is still alive; the agency’s stance has been that its primary function is to pay benefits, not ensure that death records are accurately maintained. It generally does not even check on beneficiaries who, according to official records, have lived long beyond the average life expectancy — partly out of tact, but more out of general carelessness, one suspects.

Instead, the SSA finds out about the death of a beneficiary from information provided by family members, funeral homes, other federal agencies, states, and even financial institutions. But those data often arrive in very rough form, and they may not even include accurate information about date of birth, date of death, or Social Security number.

 And the Post notes:

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.

“Most people on the outside think, ‘Well, that’d be real easy, just to get two government agencies to compare notes,’ ” he said. “Well, it’s not.”

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