Errors in ‘Death Master File’ granting benefits to the dead, GAO says

The Social Security Administration (SSA) is likely paying benefits to dead people because of reporting glitches in the federal Death Master File, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found.

The federal database, made up of nearly 100 million records of deceased people with Social Security numbers, is likely fraught with thousands of errors, the GAO concluded, following an investigation of the files.

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For example, the GAO identified almost 1,300 records of people whose recorded age of death was between 111 and 129, and nearly 1,800 records showing people who received Social Security numbers before the government began using them.

In 130 cases, people were listed as dying before they were born, the GAO found.

The errors were highlighted Wednesday at a congressional hearing on improper government payments across several benefit programs. In 2012 alone, improper federal payments totaled almost $108 million, according to an estimate from the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Among those, benefits paid to the deceased are the hardest to swallow, said Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs.

“Making payments to people who are dead, it drives me crazy,” Carper said during Wednesday’s hearing.

The SSA receives roughly 7 million death reports a year from families, post offices, funeral homes and other sources, according to Daniel Bertoni, director of education, workforce and income security issues at the GAO.

In some cases, the administration uses field staff to confirm the deaths. But in others they do not. In instances where a name doesn’t match a number, the Social Security agency often simply records no death at all, the GAO report concluded.

“Because there are a number of death reports that SSA does not verify, the agency risks including incorrect death information in the (Death Master File), such as including living individuals in the file or not including deceased individuals,” according to the report.

The GAO’s investigation isn't finished and is expected to yield recommendations later this year for how to improve the system.

The office plans to issue its final report later in 2013.

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