By JENNIFER McDERMOTT
The Federal Emergency Management Agency may have been billed twice for the funerals of hundreds of people who died of COVID-19, the Government Accountability Office said in a new report on Wednesday.
The GAO has identified 374 people who have died and are listed on more than one application who received a reward from the COVID-19 Funeral Assistance Fund. That equates to about $4.8 million in aid that could have been inappropriate or potentially fraudulent payments, according to the report.
FEMA spokeswoman Jaclyn Rothenberg said Wednesday that this was not an example of large-scale fraud and that the amount of funeral assistance identified as at risk was relatively small, the ” FEMA’s multi-level internal quality checks and fraud checks resulting in improper payments of less than 1%.
“Unfortunately, fraud, especially identity theft, is common. FEMA has controls in place to detect cases and can and will prosecute anyone who fraudulently requests assistance,” Rothenberg said in a statement.
FEMA told GAO that some duplicate claims were wrongly awarded funeral assistance due to processing errors, not fraud, and benefits were not paid twice in some cases, the report said. .
The cases were sent to the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security to determine whether to initiate fraud investigations, said Chris Currie, who leads the GAO’s work on emergency management and l disaster response and recovery, and Rebecca Shea, who oversees GAO audits to identify fraud, waste and abuse.
Shea said they could not confirm whether or not FEMA paid twice in all cases. She said she thinks the fraudsters likely targeted the fund and some of it was data entry errors.
“Given everything we’ve seen in pandemic programs over the past two years, if fraudsters weren’t trying to take advantage of this system, it would surprise me,” she said. Wednesday.
By the end of last year, FEMA had awarded about $1.5 billion in relief in response to about 235,000 claims for nearly 237,000 people who died from COVID-19, the report said. Although duplicates represent less than 0.2% of these claims, GAO said the findings are significant because of the possibility of improper payments and potential fraud in this disaster and future disasters.
There were only about 6,000 requests for funeral assistance after other disasters in the decade before the pandemic. Use of the program has “exploded” since Congress expanded it for COVID-19 by making the $50 billion Disaster Relief Fund available for such assistance, prompting the GAO to conduct a forensic audit, Currie said.
FEMA said Wednesday it has now awarded more than $2.1 billion to more than 355,000 recipients.
Most of the 374 deceased identified on more than one application were listed by different applicants, the GAO said. GAO provided three examples to FEMA. FEMA said there were processing errors and began trying to recover the money in two of the cases in January, according to the report.
About 50 deceased persons were listed on multiple applications from the same applicant, according to the report. FEMA initially said there were duplicates in the system due to a geo-coding change and only one of the applications was paid in each case, but when GAO provided examples, FEMA confirmed that duplicate apps were paid for, according to the report.
In addition, the GAO said it identified 400 other claims that received more than the maximum benefit of $9,000 for each deceased person — some up to nearly $20,000 — for about an additional $4.7 million in compensation. assistance that may have been improper or potentially fraudulent payments.
Thousands of awards have been issued in cases where there was a missing or invalid date of death according to data provided by FEMA, the GAO said. Sometimes a deceased person was listed as an applicant or the date listed for the deceased was before the start of the pandemic, raising questions about how FEMA determined eligibility in these cases, Shea said.
“That shouldn’t happen,” she said. “You know, dead people can’t claim benefits.”
GAO recommends that FEMA implement additional controls to prevent and detect improper payments and potential fraud, and address data gaps by updating records as data is verified and adding data fields as needed.
Rothenberg said FEMA established additional controls before implementing COVID-19 funeral assistance to mitigate the risk of fraud and identity theft. She said FEMA requires verifiable documentation for funeral expenses, including contracts and receipts from funeral directors, and performs several checks.
McDermott reported from Providence, RI