Federal Agencies Continue Improper Payments to Deceased People

GAO Report Calls for Increased Attention to the Death Master File

WASHINGTON – Today, Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Carper (D-Del.), Ranking Member Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), Senate Financial and Contracting Oversight Subcommittee Chairman Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), Ranking Member Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Senate Special Committee on Aging Ranking Member Susan Collins (R-Maine) highlighted a recent report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that outlines troublesome yet preventable errors in the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) database of deceased individuals, known as the Death Master File (DMF). House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Sam Johnson (R-Texas) was also a co-requestor on the report.

The GAO report, titled Social Security Death Data: Additional Action Needed to Address Data Errors and Federal Agency Access, found that federal agencies are at significant risk of making improper payments because they do not have adequate access to the complete DMF. Additionally, the report found that the DMF is at times inaccurate due to inadequate verification by the Social Security Administration.   For example, the GAO easily found instances where people’s deaths were recorded as before their births.

“This Government Accountability Office report highlights a fundamental set of problems with how government agencies keep track of deceased individuals,” said Chairman Carper. “The type of errors identified in the report cost taxpayers millions of dollars in improper payments each year.  The good news is that these problems easily can be fixed. Legislation Dr. Coburn and I introduced earlier this year with a bipartisan group of senators would help preventing payments made in error to deceased individuals.  I hope the Social Security Administration will take the findings in this report to heart and work to prevent improper payments to dead people in the future.”

“This GAO report outlines what the SSA and Congress already know: there are a number of in-house actions SSA can take to improve the Death Master File and curb wrongful payments,” said Ranking Member Coburn. “For example, in May of 2013, the SSA Office of Inspector General pointed out that over 180,000 deceased persons had not been listed in the Death Master File, even though those same persons had already been reported as deceased to the SAA Supplemental Security Records. This GAO report builds on the work by the SSA OIG and our committee, and further identifies weaknesses including the failure by SAA to independently verify death records, as well as issues with intra-agency access.  Both SSA and Congress have an obligation to safeguard American taxpayer funds since every misspent dollar is a dollar that doesn’t reach those truly in need.  Congress and the SSA can no longer remain ignorant to the fact that the Death Master File has significant problems that must be mended.  Absent competent leadership at SAA, Congressional action is needed, which is why Chairman Carper and I introduced bipartisan legislation this past summer that would address many of the problems identified by this GAO report and other past reports on the file.  It is my hope SAA and Congress institute these necessary reforms to ensure the integrity of the Death Master File.”

“We should be falling all over ourselves to make sure this list is accurate and complete and that the entire federal government has access to it,” said Senator McCaskill. “If these separate agencies were part of the same private business, there’s simply no way things would function like this. This is about the bottom line for taxpayers.”

“The Government Accountability Office has identified problems with how the Social Security Administration complies and distributes data on deceased individuals,” said Senator Ron Johnson. “It is clear that without access to complete and accurate data, federal agencies are at a risk of making millions of dollars in improper payments. I hope that the Social Security Administration will evaluate and implement the recommendations in this report and strengthen its efforts to prevent the abuse of taxpayer dollars.”

“I am deeply troubled by the discrepancies that GAO found in the Social Security Administration’s death records,” said Senator Collins.  “Unfortunately, these inaccuracies can result in the waste of taxpayer dollars through improper payments to people who are no longer alive.  I urge the Social Security Administration to take the steps recommended by the GAO to help ensure the accuracy of its records.”

In July, Chairman Carper and Ranking Member Coburn introduced the Improper Payments Agency Cooperation Enhancements Act (IPACE or S. 1360), bipartisan legislation the builds upon improper payment laws enacted in 2010 and 2012, that were championed by Chairman Carper. The legislation would curb improper payments by: Allowing federal agencies access to the complete DMF databases, not just the partial list currently available to most agencies; requiring that federal agencies make appropriate use of the DMF to regularly review beneficiary and other lists to identify dead individuals; establishing procedures to better facilitate the sharing of data about instances of death among federal agencies, including with SSA; and ensuring that federal agencies that manage retirement programs share best practices to ensure that payments to dead retirees are ended.