In today’s world of fiscal uncertainty, it’s not hard to find a story in the news where an elected official talks about dysfunctional government, increasing taxes or budget cuts. As the saying goes, it seems the only things we can really count on in this world are death and taxes. Ronald Reagan once suggested a caveat – that a government program is the closest thing to eternal life on earth. According to an article in Government Executive, he may have been right.

A recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report states that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) continued to pay out $36 million in subsidies to more than 6,300 deceased beneficiaries over a period of four years. Three agencies under the USDA were examined for their ability to properly identify deceased farmers, and subsequently prevent improper payments. While no one wants to see any improper payments, the findings had a silver lining:  the Farm Service Agency (FSA), which administers various programs that help support farm incomes and provide disaster assistance, has a procedure to analyze program participants against the Social Security Administration’s Death Master File. This has enabled the organization to recover $1 million from nearly 1,800 people who improperly received $3.3 million after their date of death. (Excellent!  Way to use public records to resolve identities and find potential fraudsters.)

Some other agencies within USDA that improperly paid the deceased do not use public records to confirm the death of benefit recipients.  Perhaps that will change in the near future.  GAO recommended that USDA agencies improve their ability to analyze program participant data so that improper payments to the deceased can be prevented.

The USDA spends $20 billion each year to support one million program participants with income assistance, crop insurance and disaster relief. If the agency is not notified when farmers die or agencies are unable to accurately identify deceased farmers, benefits continue to be paid – unless the identity is resolved and it is determined the identity is deceased. This is exactly the scenario where public records and data analytics can help solve the problem.

Kudos to the FSA for its efforts.  Now, it’s time for the other agencies to follow suit.

  1. I understand that these funds should not have been paid out in the first place but how could the organization “recover” the 1 million from someone who is deceased? The deceased could not have cashed the check themselves and unless someone else cashed the check or used the funds on their behalf it would stll be an outstanding payment on the USDA’s books. It is entirely possible it never left the USDA’s account at all.

  2. It appears that a system need to be put in place whereby all agencies who issue benefits have a link with social security that periodically runs a cross reference check (every 30 days etc on down time) so that the benefits stop earlier. I believe that this will help agencies such as SNAP, IRS, Medicaid etc.

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