Bipartisan, Bicameral Bill Aims to Curb Federal Improper Payments to the Deceased

Would Also Improve Agencies Ability to Detect Cases of People Mistakenly Listed As Dead and Denied Services

WASHINGTON – Today, a bipartisan and bicameral group of members introduced legislation that could help save millions of federal dollars by curbing erroneous payments to deceased individuals. The Stopping Improper Payments to Deceased People Act was introduced by Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Ranking Member Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) in the Senate. Representatives Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.) and Reid Ribble (R-Wis.) introduced a companion bill in the House.

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. For example, the Office of Personnel Management Inspector General reported just four years ago that $601 million in improper payments were made to federal retirees found to have died over the previous five years. 

Sen. Carper: “Year after year, we have heard about a fundamental set of problems with how government agencies keep track of deceased individuals. This legislation would take a number of common-sense steps to fix those problems and, in return, curb hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars, in improper payments to people who are ineligible for federal benefits because they are dead. The legislation would also ensure more accurate death data collection and verification, and improve procedures for fixing the information of living beneficiaries who are mistakenly listed as dead. I look forward to working with Chairman Johnson, Representatives Bustos and Ribble, and our colleagues to advance this bill and prevent improper payments to dead people in the future.”

Sen. Johnson: “Social Security’s death records are in disarray — they show millions of people over 112 years of age as alive when they’re actually dead. They mistakenly mark tens of thousands of living people each year as dead when they are alive. By cleaning up Social Security’s Death Master File and sharing it with other federal agencies, we can protect taxpayers and ensure their money isn’t being wasted fraudulently on the deceased.

“Unfortunately, this problem has been highlighted for years and has not yet been addressed – it is just another sign Washington’s dysfunction. This legislation would cut off payments to the deceased and those fraudulently using their identity. It is common-sense legislation, and one step toward fixing Washington.”

Joining Sens. Carper and Johnson as original cosponsors of the Senate bill are Sens. Dan Coats (R-Ind.), Mark Warner (D-Va.), and Cory Booker (D-N.J.). 

Rep. Bustos: “It’s unacceptable that the federal government spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year in improper payments to deceased people. I’m proud to join with my colleagues to introduce this common sense plan to save taxpayer money by giving agencies the tools they need to put an end to this outrageous waste.”

Rep. Ribble: “Every day, we have hard choices to make on how to spend limited taxpayer dollars. Not spending them on Social Security payments for people who have passed away is an easy choice. The Stopping Improper Payments to Deceased People Act is a commonsense good government bill to help ensure that Social Security funds are spent only where they are needed.”

Joining Reps. Bustos and Ribble as original cosponsors of the House bill are: Reps. Susan Brooks (R-Ind.), Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), Jim Costa (D-Calif.), Scott Peters (D-Calif.), Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.), Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), Sanford Bishop (D-Ga.), Filemon Vela (D-Texas), Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), Brad Ashford (D-Neb.), Gwen Graham (D-Fla.), Julia Brownley (D-Calif.), Rodney Davis (R-Ill.), Patrick Murphy (D-Fla.), Mike Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), John Carney (D-Del.), Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.), Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.), Ron Kind (D-Wis.), and Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.).

The legislation builds upon recently enacted improper payment laws by allowing and requiring federal agencies to use more accurate and complete lists of deceased individuals to confirm payment eligibility.

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.

Last month, 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.