WASHINGTON – The U.S. government has a problem with dead people. For one thing, it pays them way too much money.
In the past few years, Social Security paid $133 million to beneficiaries who were deceased. The federal employee retirement system paid more than $400 million to retirees who had passed away. And an aid program spent $3.9 million in federal money to pay heating and air-conditioning bills for more than 11,000 of the dead.
Because of a jury-rigged and outdated system meant to track deaths, the government has trouble determining exactly which Americans are deceased. As a result, Washington is bedeviled by both the living dead and the dead living. The first group are people who have died but are counted as alive in federal records. Their benefits keep coming. Millions of dollars pile up in unwatched accounts. In a recent record-breaking case, a son stole his dead fathers federal benefits for 26 years.
The second group includes living Americans – at least 750 new people every month – whom the system falsely lists as dead. And once youre on that list, it is not easy to get off. This summer in Utah, a man visited a Social Security office to protest his death in person. But the clerks wanted more evidence. They gave him a piece of paper, the mans son recalled. They asked him to write on it, Im alive.
The task of tracking deaths for the federal bureaucracy is an enormous one; about 2.5 million Americans die each year. Federal officials say the vast majority of these cases are handled correctly: The death is recorded. Government money is no longer sent to that person.
But glitches in the system have paid more than $700 million to the dead, according to government audits performed since 2008.
The latest mistakes were revealed last week. In 2011 alone, auditors found, Medicare paid $23 million for services provided to dead people. From 2009 to 2011, it spent $8.2 million on medical equipment prescribed by doctors who had been dead for at least a year. The causes seemed to include poor record-keeping, sometimes exploited by fraudsters.
For government watchdogs, these are some of the most fixable – and therefore the most maddening – mistakes that the government makes. A big part of the frustration stems from the fact that there is no interest group fighting to keep the status quo: The dead do not lobby.
But, somehow, they still get paid.
Not to speak ill of the dead, but theyre the least deserving of federal payments, said Steve Ellis of the group Taxpayers for Common Sense. This is real money: Payments to the dead in recent years have totaled more than the annual budget of the Library of Congress. But the situation doesnt get fixed, Ellis said, because the cost is spread among all taxpayers – too wide and too thin to make anybody very mad.
In the end, its not enough money. And its not enough of an issue to get people rallied around, he said.