Key Committee Approves Bill to Curb Federal Improper Payments to the Deceased

WASHINGTON – Today, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs approved a bipartisan bill that could help save millions of dollars by curbing erroneous payments to deceased individuals. The Stopping Improper Payments to Deceased People Act (S.1073) was introduced by committee Ranking Member Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), with co-sponsors Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.), Dan Coats (R-Ind.), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), Thom Thillis (R-NC) and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), and ordered reported favorably by the committee, as amended. The legislation would curb wasteful payments to deceased people by allowing – and requiring – federal agencies to use more accurate and complete lists of deceased individuals to confirm payment eligibility.

Ranking Member Carper: “Year after year, we hear about the costly communication breakdown between government agencies when it comes to keeping track of individuals who are, unfortunately, deceased and no longer eligible for benefits and other payments from the federal government. Improper payments to deceased individuals are the kind of expensive, avoidable mistakes that lead to wasteful spending and leave our government programs vulnerable to fraud and abuse. By implementing some commonsense steps to improve coordination between agencies, we can curb improper payments and yield savings in hundreds of millions, if not billions of taxpayer dollars. This bill would also improve accuracy in death data collection and verification, and improve procedures for fixing the information on living beneficiaries who are mistakenly listed as dead. I look forward to working with my colleagues in Congress to get it to the President’s desk.”

Chairman Johnson: “Last year the federal government spent $124.7 billion by making improper payments, a $19 billion increase from the previous year.  There are many reasons for this problem. But one simple reason is that our massive federal bureaucracy has a surprisingly difficult time figuring out who is deceased and who isn’t. Our hearing this spring highlighted the financial devastation of individuals who are alive but marked as deceased by the federal government. I’m happy to sponsor this bill with Ranking Member Carper. It will help protect citizens from unnecessary government errors.”

The Social Security Administration (SSA) maintains the most complete federal database of individuals who are reported to have died. However, only a small number of federal agencies have access to this official list, and most federal agencies rely on a slimmed down, incomplete and less timely version of the death information. In addition, most Inspectors General lack access to the complete death information. As a result, many federal agencies make erroneous payments to people who are actually deceased.

A companion bill in the House of Representatives (H.R. 2003) is co-sponsored by Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.) and Reid Ribble (R-Wis.). Key provisions in both bills include:

  • Allowing Federal Agencies Access to the Complete Death Database. Under current law, only agencies that directly handle beneficiary payments may have access to the complete death data. The Act allows all appropriate federal agencies to have access to the complete death data for program integrity purposes, as well as other needs such as public safety and health.
  • Requiring Use of Death Data to Curb Improper Payments. The Act would require that federal agencies make appropriate use of the death data in order to curb improper payments.
  • Improving the Death Data. The legislation establishes procedures to ensure more accurate death data.  For example, in response to a recent Inspector General report, the Act requires the SSA to screen for individuals currently listed as being older than 112 years of age, and make corrections. The Act will also mandate much improved procedures for fixing errors by living beneficiaries who are mistakenly listed as dead.

Earlier this year, the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee held the hearing “Examining Federal Improper Payments and Errors in the Death Master File,” to examine errors in the SSA’s “Death Master File,” the federal government’s official list of deceased individuals. The hearing further explored a SSA’s Office of the Inspector General report that 6.5 million people who have active Social Security numbers, according to the agencies own records, exceed 112 years of age and are likely deceased, and witness testimony described how thousands of living people each year are mistakenly listed as dead. The topic was also the focus of a 60 Minutes investigation that examined fraud and identity theft due to these errors.