Lawmakers Revive Effort to Curb Agency Payments to Dead People

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., is one of the sponsors of the bill. Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., is one of the sponsors of the bill. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

In the latest solution to a perennial problem of improper federal payments to the deceased, a bipartisan group in Congress on Monday offered a new bill that would expand agency access to the closely regulated death database kept by the Social Security Administration.

The Stopping Improper Payments to Deceased People Act (H.R. 4929)—which backers say would save millions of dollars—was introduced in the Senate by Sens. Tom Carper, D-Del., and John Kennedy, R-La., and in the House by Reps. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., and Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont.

Because of privacy concerns, only a small number of federal agencies have access to the SSA’s official list, “and most federal agencies rely on a slimmed down, incomplete and less timely version of the death information,” the senators said in a release. Not even inspectors have access to the complete death information.

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“Year after year, we have heard about a fundamental set of problems with how government agencies keep track of deceased individuals,” Carper said. “This legislation would take a number of common-sense steps to fix those problems….Simply put, we need to sharpen our pencils and stop making the kind of expensive, avoidable mistakes that lead to wasteful spending and make our agencies and programs vulnerable to fraud and abuse.”

Gianforte said, “This bipartisan measure will slash through red tape in the federal bureaucracy to reduce waste, fraud and abuse and protect taxpayer money. We must give the Social Security Administration more tools to ensure the federal government isn’t paying benefits to deceased people.”

The bill would allow all “appropriate” federal agency access to the complete death data for program integrity purposes, as well as other needs such as public safety and health. It would require those agencies to make good use of the death data in curbing improper payments, and enhance SSA screening of “extremely elderly” individuals. In 2015, the SSA inspector general found 6.5 million names of people on the list as being older than 112. The accuracy of SSA’s master database is affected by unreliable reporting by families and the funeral industry.

Also backing the bill are Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.; Gary Peters, D-Mich.; and Mark Warner, D-Va. The nonprofit Project on Government Oversight also sent a letter endorsing the bill.

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