Federal auditors said Friday the Social Security Administration still struggles with a basic problem — figuring out who is dead and who is not.
The question is a crucial one, since federal agencies rely on the administration to cross-match data on deceased persons and avoid paying out federally funded benefits to people who aren’t alive, or to establish accurate benefits for survivors.
The administration also maintains a “Death Master File” that is available to the public.
“SSA’s methods for processing death reports may result in inaccurate, incomplete or untimely information for users of its death data,” the Government Accountability Office, an arm of Congress, said in the new report. “Consequently, this could lead to improper payments if benefit-paying agencies rely on this data.”
Auditors attributed these pitfalls to how they verify death reports from a patchwork of sources, which include state sources, families, funeral directors, post office, financial institutions and more.
“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,” it said.
The auditors also found inconsistencies in how several federal agencies reimburse the SSA, if at all, for sharing its data. Some agencies share data with the SSA, too, and consider their arrangement a reciprocal one, yet administration officials “were unable to point to any reciprocity study supporting this decision.”
The auditors said the administration should develop clearer plans for how it obtains death reports, ensures their accuracy and shares them with other agencies.
“Only with more accurate and complete data can these agencies reduce the risk of paying deceased beneficiaries,” the GAO 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.”
Federal distribution of payments to the non-living has been a pesky, persistent problem for the federal government.
The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) reported that for fiscal year 2012, federal agencies made improper payments totaling nearly $108 billion.
In July, the GAO said the federal government is still paying out millions of dollars a year in subsidies to dead farmers because the Agriculture Department didn’t do routine checks required to make sure it is paying benefits to the right people. The department said it had some safeguards in place, but acknowledged their procedures “were not effectively and consistently implemented to identify deceased individuals.”
The report can be found at http://www.gao.gov/assets/660/659289.pdf.