- The Washington Times - Monday, April 18, 2022

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is using taxpayer money to buy flowers, pay for catering and place obituaries for COVID victims — all expenses that the agency’s own policies say aren’t permitted, according to an urgent audit Monday by the agency’s inspector general.

FEMA’s emergency funeral program is supposed to cover actual burial or cremation, but during the coronavirus pandemic it has started paying for things that go well beyond those two activities, the Homeland Security inspector general reported.

FEMA is putting millions of taxpayer dollars at an elevated risk of waste and abuse by reimbursing funeral expenses identified as ineligible by its own policies,” the audit concluded.

In addition to flowers and catering, investigators said they also found FEMA covered payments for obituaries, funeral register books and even tips paid to funeral workers.

Investigators said they reviewed 166 applications and found that 98 of them included payments for bogus costs.

The problem is that during the pandemic, FEMA has instructed its employees to pay for most verifiable expenses that show up on a COVID-related funeral home bill.

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That meant a $1,050 charge for flowers, a $1,300 catering charge or a $3,760 charge for a funeral processing, including a horse and carriage, could all be covered by taxpayers, the inspector general reported.

But those same costs would be rejected if they were incurred for a funeral for another FEMA-covered disaster, such as the building collapse last June in Surfside, Florida, the inspector general said.

Congress has allocated billions of dollars to cover costs of coronavirus funerals as part of the trillions of dollars in federal assistance doled out so far.

Watchdog groups say hundreds of billions of dollars were wasted as federal agencies and their partners cut corners and changed rules to speed cash out the door.

From April 2021, when FEMA began to cover funeral expenses, to March 1, 2022, the agency said it has spent $1.9 billion to cover 297,304 funerals.

FEMA, in its official response to the inspector general, disputed the investigation’s findings, saying the law gives the agency broad powers to decide what funeral expenses to cover, and the agency was seeking to offer speed, flexibility and empathy for victims.

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The agency said it created new policies for COVID that allow for the expansive reimbursement. Besides, the scale of death from this emergency outstrips any previous funeral assistance demands, said Cynthia Spishak, associate administrator at FEMA’s Office of Policy and Program Analysis.

FEMA leadership believes that Interim Policy 104-21-0001 provides a level of flexibility that aligns with what lawmakers intended regarding the extent to which FEMA should provide necessary expenses associated with funerals to the hundreds of thousands of Americans who lost loved ones to COVID-19,” she said.

The agency said it even ran its expansive COVID plans by congressional staffers and at least a couple of members of Congress.

For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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