A new report says the Social Security Administration failed to properly record the deaths of 1.2 million Americans on a list that is distributed to federal agencies and private companies, making it likely that their families or others wrongly received benefits after they died.
The report released this week by the Social Security agency’s inspector general follows several audits that in recent years have found the government paid benefits from farm subsidies to Medicare years after the people designated to receive them died.
The audit did not determine how many of the 1.2 million people still are collecting government benefits or subsidies.
The Social Security agency sends monthly checks to retirees and disabled workers. Once someone dies, the benefits are supposed to stop after relatives or funeral homes contact their local Social Security office.
In this case, the inspector general found, based on a small sample, that Social Security officials appeared to stop retirement benefits once they were notified of a death.
But pulling them from Social Security rolls did not mean other government benefits stopped. That’s because the death was not recorded in a national list that is distributed to other federal agencies and private companies, who rely on it to determine whether people receiving benefits are still eligible to get them.
The list, called a “Death Master File” is also used to verify a person’s identity and prevent fraud. In 2010 President Obama directed federal agencies to shore up their systems for determining someone’s eligibility before releasing any payment or award.
The inspector general found that the 1.2 million deaths were not recorded in the master file either because data about the people did not match up with other computer system or clerical errors by employees.
Auditors recommended that the agency do a better job matching deaths recorded on its benefit rolls with its master list, and improve its recordkeeping. In response, agency officials concurred with the recommendations, according to the report. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), ranking member of the Social Security subcommittee, called the poor recordkeeping “inexcusable” and said the failure to properly maintain the database of deaths costs taxpayers millions of dollars a year.
“That is embarrassing, especially when the [Social Security Administration] is overseeing retirement and disability programs that are going bankrupt,” he said in a statement.