As the compiler of the death master list of Americans used by many agencies, the Social Security Administration could do more to reduce data errors and erroneous payments to deceased beneficiaries by clarifying the risks, Congress’ watchdog found.
“SSA lacks written guidelines other than the language in the [Social Security] Act for determining whether agencies are eligible under the act to access the full death file, and it does not share with agencies how it determines the reasonable cost of sharing the data, which recipients of the full file are required to reimburse SSA,” the Government Accountability Office wrote in a report released Dec. 27.
For decades the Social Security Administration has updated the death master list using information from state agencies and families, selling the data to other agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service and the Veterans Affairs Department. It also makes a shortened version available to the public through the Commerce Department’s National Technical Information Service.
But SSA currently verifies only the data needed to confirm eligibility for Social Security checks, and Congress is considering legislation to make full data available to a wider range of agencies.
“Federal benefit programs’ need for accurate administrative data, such as death information, is increasingly evident in an environment of continuing budget shortages, where improper payments due to inaccurate information cost taxpayers billions of dollars in fiscal year 2012,” GAO noted. “Because of its mission, SSA is uniquely positioned to collect and manage death data at the federal level.”
The agency doesn’t know how to address errors or provide other agencies with timely information “because SSA has never analyzed the risk posed by errors or processes that could result in errors,” GAO said.
In addition, SSA’s pricing is insufficiently transparent to ensure that all agencies negotiate similar terms for acquiring the data.
GAO recommended that SSA assess risks associated with inaccuracies; develop and publicize guidance it will use to determine agency access under the law; and share detailed reimbursement estimates.
SSA accepted most of the recommendations but balked at developing and publicizing guidance, stating that each request is unique and that “it is not a typical government business practice to share these detailed costs for reimbursable agreements.”
(Image via Flickr user dumbeast)