In-Depth: Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-IL) reintroduced this bill from the 115th Congress to allow all federal agencies access to the Social Security Administration’s Death Master File, which is the most complete information on who has died:
“Taxpayers deserve to know that we’re protecting their hard earned dollars and I can’t think of a more egregious example of government waste than writing checks to dead people. Our legislation will cut through government red tape and deliver real reforms to prevent waste, fraud and abuse of tax dollars by streamlining the way federal agencies share information. I’m proud to be working with Democrats and Republicans to solve this problem.”
Original cosponsor Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-MT) adds:
“The federal government makes billions of dollars in improper payments each year, including Social Security payments to deceased beneficiaries. This bipartisan measure will slash through red tape in the federal bureaucracy to reduce waste, fraud, and abuse and protect taxpayer money. We must give the Social Security Administration more tools to ensure the federal government isn’t paying benefits to deceased people.”
Senate sponsor Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE) adds:
“As government officials, one of our most important responsibilities is to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars. That’s why, for years, I have worked across the aisle to assess federal government spending and eliminate billions of taxpayer dollars in waste, fraud and abuse. But there is still work to be done because we know that year after year, the federal government continues to mismanage billions of dollars through improper payments. [This bill] would provide federal agencies with the most up-to-date data they need to prevent improper payments to deceased people. The money saved by these efforts can be put to good use, like funding health care programs or investing in our decades-old infrastructure. With a little hard work and bipartisanship, we can take the common sense steps necessary to reduce improper payments and put these funds to better use for the American people.”
The Project on Government Oversight (POGO) expressed its support for this bill in February 2018, when it was being considered in the 115th Congress:
“The ‘Stopping Improper Payments to Deceased People Act’ is important legislation that would curb waste and fraud involving federal payments… A major portion of wasteful government spending is a broad category known as ‘improper payments,’ which are payments made in the wrong amount, to the wrong people, or for the wrong reason. Each year, federal improper payments result from insufficient financial accountability, and divert dollars from where they are needed. One significant cause of improper payments is payments made by federal agencies to individuals who are deceased. According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), not all federal agencies have access to the complete list of deceased individuals maintained by the Social Security Administration (SSA). Instead, when checking eligibility for federal payments, many agencies can only use a partial list and so mistakenly pay millions of deceased people. For example, the Department of Agriculture and the Federal Emergency Management Agency can only use the partial list, resulting in improper payments to dead program beneficiaries. Stopping Improper Payments to Deceased People Act follows the GAO’s recommendation to provide agencies with access to the full death list maintained by the SSA.”
This bill has nine bipartisan House cosponsors, including five Democrats and four Republicans, in the 116th Congress. A Senate companion bill, sponsored by Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE), has eight bipartisan Senate cosponsors, including five Democrats, two Republicans, and one Independent.
In the 115th Congress, this bill had 14 bipartisan House cosponsors, including seven from each party, and didn’t receive a committee vote. The Senate version passed the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs with the support of 10 bipartisan Senate cosponsors, including six Democrats, three Republicans, and one Independent.
When this bill was introduced in 2018, it was supported by American Commitment, Americans for Tax Reform, Coalition to Reduce Spending, FreedomWorks, National Taxpayers Union, Project on Government Oversight, 60 Plus Association, Taxpayers for Common Sense, Taxpayers Protection Alliance.
Of Note: Under current law, only federal agencies that directly manage programs making beneficiary payments have access to complete death data, so most federal agencies rely on a slimmed-down, incomplete and less timely version of the Death Master File. This results in many federal agencies making erroneous payments to people who are actually deceased.
Improper payments have been a frequent criticism of wasteful spending in government. In 2015, a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report estimated that federal agencies disbursed nearly $125 billion in improper payments to ineligible recipients in FY 2014. In FY 2016, it was estimated that improper payments throughout the federal government total over $144 billion. While the Trump administration hasn’t published a government-wide improper payment rate for FY 2017, the GAO and others report that the improper payment rate is essentially unchanged, at $141 billion.
In a 2011 report, the Office of Personnel Management Inspector General found that $601 million in improper payments were made to federal retirees who’d died over the previous five years. In one case, the SSA made $381,000 in payments through 2018 to the account of a beneficiary who died in 1974.
In 2015, Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) released a report, “Federal Fumbles: 100 Ways the Government Dropped the Ball,” in which he noted that an analysis of SSA files showed approximately 6.5 million people aged 112 or older as still alive — which Sen. Lankford’s office termed “an unlikely probability.” For context, historical databases indicate that there are fewer than 100 living people on Earth over the age of 112.
Summary by Lorelei Yang(Photo Credit: iStockphoto.com / BackyardProduction)