GAO Report: Social Security Doesn't Know Who's Dead

Saturday, 28 Dec 2013 02:13 PM

By Sandy Fitzgerald

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The Social Security Administration doesn't verify all its death reports, a new government report says, leading to problems when it comes to paying survivors' benefits.

"SSA’s methods for processing death reports may result in inaccurate, incomplete or untimely information for users of its death data," says the Government Accountability Office in its report.

"Consequently, this could lead to improper payments if benefit-paying agencies rely on this data."

The SSA is responsible for cross-matching data on dead people, so that federal agencies can avoid paying out benefits to people who are no longer alive, reports The Washington Times, and so that they can pay accurate benefits for surviving family members.

The agency also maintains a "Death Master File" that is available to the public, but the data may not be entirely accurate, the GAO report indicates.

Auditors said SSA verifies death reports from several places, including state records, families, funeral directors, the post office, banks, and other places it considers accurate.

"Because SSA does not verify death reports from sources it considers most accurate, the agency risks having erroneous information in its death data, such as including living individuals or not including deceased individuals," the GAO report said.

The SSA is also inconsistent in how it shares its data, the auditors revealed. Some agencies share with the SSA, but it does not always share back.

The GAO recommended that SSA develop better plans for verifying death reports and sharing them with other government agencies.

"Only with more accurate and complete data can these agencies reduce the risk of paying deceased beneficiaries,” auditors said. "However, because SSA has never analyzed the risk posed by errors or processes that could result in errors, it is not fully aware of steps that would be needed to address them."

The government pays out billions in improper death benefits, according to the Office of Management and Budget. In fiscal year 2012 alone, agencies paid out $108 billion in improper payments, including millions of dollars a year in subsidies to dead farmers after the Agriculture Department did not verify where the money was going, the GAO said.

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