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Senator: Free up access to SSA database to head off payments to dead

May. 8, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
By SEAN REILLY   |   Comments
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said, the Social Security Administration should stop charging other agencies for access to its death records database because it is a key tool in heading off government payments to the deceased.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said, the Social Security Administration should stop charging other agencies for access to its death records database because it is a key tool in heading off government payments to the deceased. (Thomas Brown / Staff)

The Social Security Administration should stop charging other agencies for access to its death records database because it is a key tool in heading off government payments to the deceased, a senator said Wednesday.

The information is intended “to keep money from going out the door that shouldn’t be going out the door,” Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said at a hearing on improper payments. “We should be falling all over ourselves — no matter what part of government we are — to make sure this list is everywhere.”

The database, formally known as the Death Master File, is used by SSA officials to prevent Social Security benefit payments to dead people. Last year alone, the agency received about 7 million death reports from family members, funeral home directors and other sources, according to the Government Accountability Office.

But by law, the agency has to be reimbursed when providing the data to other agencies unless it’s getting something in return, Marianna LaCanfora, acting deputy Social Security commissioner for retirement and disability policy, said at the hearing by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. The Defense Department, for example, pays more than $40,000 annually for monthly updates, while the Office of Personnel Management is charged nothing because it provides other information to SSA, Daniel Bertoni of GAO said in prepared testimony.

Danny Werfel, controller for the Office of Management and Budget, told McCaskill he isn’t familiar with the specifics of the reimbursement issue, but agreed with the principle that agencies should have “a logical approach” in dealing with each other.

Overall, government payments to the dead make up a tiny fraction of total benefit spending. But they garner a disproportionate amount of attention from the media and politicians. In a 2010 report titled “Federal Programs to Die For,” Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., found that the Agriculture Department had over time spent $1.1 billion on subsidies for dead farmers while Medicare had paid $92 million for medical supplies prescribed by dead doctors.

Despite reducing the overall improper payment rate since then, the government has “done little” to address the problem of payments to dead people, Coburn, now the committee’s top Republican, said at Wednesday’s hearing.

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