Earlier this year, President Trump signed a giant $1.3 trillion spending bill to fund the U.S. government. He signed, he said, under protest. Tucked in there are billions in spending on programs, that rarely if ever, see the light of oversight. One dreadful example of taxpayer waste is decades of government checks going out to the deceased. Lisa Fletcher spoke with a senator who wants to bury the practice.
Lisa: The wind-worn stones of Washington's Congressional Cemetery have witnessed more than two hundred years of history. People who helped shape the capital and the nation lie all around. And more graves are added each year. In total, more than two and half million people will die across the country this year. Many are collecting some form of government benefit at the time of their death. Leaving a giant administrative headache for bureaucrats tasked with stopping the payments when people die. All too often, the money just keeps flowing. How much taxpayer money is the government incorrectly paying to dead people?
Senator Tom Carper: I'm not sure anybody has a real firm grasp as to how much it is, but we know it's hundreds of millions of dollars. And it's probably over time a whole lot more than that.
Lisa: Delaware Democrat Senator Tom Carper has spent years trying to get the government to stop paying the dead.
Tom Carper: Part of the problem here is the Social Security Administration has the sort of master, what we call the master death file, and it's, try to keep track of who's dying so that we don't continue to pay benefits for them. They don't do a great job at it but they do better than anybody else in the federal government.
Lisa: The master death file is a list kept by the Social Security Administration. Over the time, it's become the de facto best source of nationwide death information, the problem is, it isn't that accurate. You know, hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars have been squandered being paid out to dead people. Why is it so hard to get people to move on this and fix this issue?
Tom Carper: Part of the problem, the federal law, I think it's called the Social Security Act, that limits the ability of other federal agencies to access the information that's part of Social Security's fiefdom.
Lisa: That Social Security fiefdom often leaves other departments and agencies who might be paying benefits at least partially in the dark. I'm curious what you think the incentive is for people, politicians, to push back on shoring up these laws that would save billions of dollars.
Tom Carper: Well some people have a relative who may have died or is going to die. And if the agency doesn't find out about it, they can continue to pay the money. And somebody can pick up the change, the check, or have access to somebody's direct deposit.
Lisa: Is it possible that people could think, this is the government. They've got all my information. They know what they should be sending me. I wouldn't be getting it if I wasn't entitled to it?
Tom Carper: I like to give people the benefit of the doubt. But, I think for us to somehow assume that the government knows when everybody dies in a timely way is probably the triumph of man's hope over experience.
Lisa: I wanna flip this a little bit. Let's talk about what happens when someone is incorrectly put in the death master file.
Tom Carper: We had a hearing a couple years ago with a woman who was reported by the death master file to be dead and she was very much alive.
Lisa: I know you were central to that committee hearing. Let's listen to what Judy Rivers had to say.
Judy Rivers: My name is Judy Rivers and I've twice been listed on the death master file. I could never have imagined I would reach the point of hopeless homelessness, financial destitution, loss of reputation and credibility, unable to find a job, an apartment, a student loan or even buy a cell phone.
Tom Carper: It turned her life sort of on its head. And it made it difficult for her to have, like a bank account, access to credit, credit cards and so forth. And it was almost as if she were like a nonperson.
Lisa: So, your bill is pretty all-encompassing? And it's also looking at people who are falsely put on the death master file who are still alive.
Tom Carper: Yeah. We have a two-fold purpose here. One is to make sure that people whose names should be on the death master file are there and we're not paying benefits that should not be paid. But second, for those people, maybe a thousand or so a month, whose names get placed on the death master file, who are very much alive, who by being put on that file their lives are really turned upside down, wanna make sure that number comes down.
A 2015 report found that there are 6.5 million Americans with active Social Security numbers, who are over the age of 112.