Government payments to dead people

One of the very few voices of reason in the senate, Tom Coburn (R-OK) is a practicing physician, a true conservative, and a fiscal hawk. On many occasions he has pointed out waste/fraud/abuse in the federal government. One can only hope that Coburn and others (like Jim DeMint) will have a greater role in putting things in order after the coming elections.

Last Friday Coburn’s office released a report, entitled “Federal-Programs-To-Die-For-2,” on government payments to dead people. Here is the introduction to the report:

Over the last decade, Washington sent over $1 billion of your tax dollars to dead people. Washington paid for dead people’s prescriptions and wheelchairs, subsidized their farms, helped pay their rent, and even chipped in for their heating and air conditioning bills.

In some cases, these payments quietly gather in a dormant bank account. In many others, however, they land in the pockets of still-living people, who are defrauding the system by collecting benefits meant for a now-deceased relative.

Since 2000, the known cost of these payments to over 250,000 deceased individuals has topped $1 billion, according to a review of government audits and reports by the Government Accountability Office, inspectors general, and Congress itself. This is likely only a small picture of a much larger problem. Among the agencies making
payments to the deceased:

  • The Social Security Administration sent $18 million in stimulus funds to71,688 dead people and $40.3 million in questionable benefit payments to1,760 dead people.
  • The Department of Health and Human Services sent 11,000 dead people $3.9million in assistance to  pay heating and cooling costs.
  • The Department of Agriculture sent $1.1 billion in farming subsidies to deceased farmers.
  • The Department of Housing and Urban Development overseeing local agencies knowingly distributed $15.2 million in housing subsidies to 3,995 households with at least one deceased person.
  • Medicaid paid over $700,000 in claims for prescriptions for controlled substances written for over 1,800 deceased patients and prescriptions for
    controlled substances written by 1,200 deceased doctors.
  • Medicare paid as much as $92 million in claims for medical supplies prescribed by dead doctors and $8.2 million for medical supplies prescribed for dead patients.
  • Congress has established HIV/AIDS funding distribution based on historic numbers of deceased HIV/AIDS patients, while many individuals living with AIDS desperately wait for medical care.

In June, the administration announced new steps to stop itself from making these payments: agencies are now supposed to check their payees against the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) Death Master File (DMF). But SSA admits its records are fraught with errors. “[I]t is extremely expensive and may even be impossible to determine if a person is alive or dead particularly if the person died many years ago,” the Commissioner of SSA, Michael Astrue, explained in 2009. So the administration’s new process cannot ensure the payments will end or improperly deny live, eligible Americans their benefits.

These erroneous payments are not the fault of the administration alone. Congress has repeatedly failed to give agencies the legislative tools they need to combat this waste, and we have fallen short of our solemn duty to oversee government operations. This report finds room for improvement across the government, but nowhere are the shortcomings more glaring than on Capitol Hill.

At a time when our country has incurred a $1.3 trillion deficit and a $13.4 trillion dollar debt, these wasted funds would be better spent reducing the deficit or addressing real needs during this time of economic uncertainty.

At this point in our nation’s history, it is of the utmost importance that every tax dollar spent by the government be put to good use. This means spending within our means on the living, not outside our means on the dead.

While no one can be certain what will happen in this election until Wednesday, it sure would be nice to have a few more like Tom Coburn in congress. I’m not confident that the country club establishment republicans will get the message or not, but they better listen up. The TEA Party is not going away, it will only get stronger. The establishment republicans ignore its message at their own significant risk. They will certainly face an even angrier electorate in 2012 and beyond if they don’t bend to the will of the people.

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