Social Security just can’t stop paying dead people.
The massive public pensions system will pay millions this year to people it knows are dead — in many cases, it even has death certificate numbers listed — but officials can’t seem to figure out how to stop outgoing benefit checks, according to a new inspector general’s audit announced Wednesday.
Investigators found 678 people for whom there was clear evidence of death, yet they were paid $20 million in bogus benefits after they died, investigators said.
Even worse, 53 of those people were identified in previous audits in 2009 and 2013, yet Social Security was still paying benefits to them when the inspector general reviewed their cases last year.
“Our death-processing system is decades old and needs modernizing,” Stephanie Hall, deputy chief of staff at Social Security, told auditors.
She said they began updates to their Death Alert system in 2014, and said they’re already seeing progress.
Indeed, the extent of the problem does seem to be diminishing.
In the 2009 audit, investigators found about 6,000 people who were still being paid despite some evidence they’d died. By 2013 that number was down to less than 2,500.
In the new audit, the tally is 1,281 people for whom there was some suggestion they were dead yet still being paid benefits.
Of those, some are likely still alive and were erroneously marked with a date of death, the investigators said. But 678 of them had death certificate numbers or other firm indicators they were, in fact deceased, signaling a concrete universe of erroneous payments.
It’s still a minuscule fraction of the total number of the 60 million or so people Social Security pays benefits to each year.
But some of the cases are extreme, with benefits still being paid out more than 17 years after Social Security first recorded them as dead.
In one specific case detailed in the audit, a man died in September 2010 and two months later Social Security verified and recorded his date of death on his file. But it didn’t correct its payment system, so he kept receiving checks.
He was flagged in a 2013 “Death Alert” by Social Security, but even that still didn’t stop payments.
All told, he was paid more than $133,000 before the inspector general’s review finally stopped payments in May 2017. The case was referred for a criminal investigation into who was collecting the money.
Social Security didn’t respond to a request seeking comment on how people managed to stay in the system despite being flagged in previous audits.
But in its official response to the inspector general the agency said it accepted recommendations to review all the names the audit flagged, to try to recover money from people who cashed checks of dead beneficiaries, and to come up with a system for systematically processing Death Alerts.