That old joke about a premature report of someone’s death isn’t so funny when it’s the government declaring people dead who are not.

That’s what’s happening at the Social Security Administration (SSA).

Social Security officials have discovered 90 cases in their records where the living were listed as deceased.  That’s 90 “as of today,” Mark Hinkle, an SSA spokesman, said late Thursday. “We are not yet sure how many were in error.” The 90 are from a group of 19,000 cases.

Ironically, the erroneous cases are from pilot projects in Virginia, North Dakota and South Dakota, designed “to enhance the quality of our death records,” Hinkle said.

Clearly, there is more work to be done on that point.

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“We recently learned that some deaths posted through this effort contained erroneous information,” he added. “We are working to identify which records contained erroneous information.”

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Being mistaken for dead is no joke. It can have financial consequences, affecting federal benefits from various agencies, including Social Security payments.

“We have instructed our employees to assist people expeditiously to remove death information from their records,” Hinkle said, “and to reinstate benefits as quickly as possible.”

Other federal agencies are being told they might have received erroneous death information from the SSA.

“We are emphasizing that they should not take action without independently verifying the information,” Hinkle said.

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The SSA plans to send letters to the 19,000 people potentially affected with information on how to find out if the agency thinks they are dead and how to correct the record if that’s the case.

Erroneous death notices are not new for the SSA. It has about 9,000 such cases each year. That’s less than 1 percent of the agency’s 2.8 million annual death reports.

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