Federal Benefit Payments:

Agencies Need Death Information From Social Security to Avoid Erroneous Payments

HRD-91-3: Published: Feb 6, 1991. Publicly Released: Feb 6, 1991.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed federal agencies' use of the Social Security Administration's (SSA) death information for preventing erroneous benefit payments and the collection of overpayments.

GAO found that: (1) federal agencies' lack of a timely and effective way to detect unreported beneficiary deaths caused them to pay millions of dollars in erroneous payments to deceased beneficiaries; (2) in September 1989, 20 federal benefit programs erroneously paid more than $4.3 million to the accounts of beneficiaries who were listed as deceased in SSA records; (3) SSA provided its database of 40 million voluntarily reported deaths without charge to federal agencies with benefit programs; (4) none of the agencies obtained supplemental death information that SSA obtained from state bureaus of vital statistics; and (5) SSA could disclose state death certificate information to federal agencies administering health or income maintenance programs in 19 of its 53 state agreements, but the remaining 34 agreements required written release from the originating state.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Matter for Congressional Consideration

    Matter: To prevent erroneous federal benefit payments to decedents' accounts, Congress should legislatively require, as a condition of receiving related federal assistance, that the states lift the restrictions on the use of their death information.

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Public Law 103-213, the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1993, requires the states to remove restrictions on the use of their data.

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To ensure the systematic sharing and use of death information among federal agencies, the Director, OMB, should require the heads of all executive departments and agencies responsible for administering benefit programs to: (1) obtain, as frequently as appropriate, SSA voluntarily reported death information and, if and when available, state death certificate information; (2) match this information with agencies' current benefit payment files; (3) independently verify beneficiary deaths; and (4) when appropriate, take prompt action to end benefits and collect erroneous payments.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of Management and Budget

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: OMB Bulletin 92-04 requires government-wide use of SSA death data.

    Recommendation: The Director, OMB, should require SSA to provide such information to all agencies requesting it. Furthermore, the Director should require those agencies to advise SSA of the results of agency investigations to improve the accuracy of SSA death information.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of Management and Budget

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: OMB Bulletin 92-04 requires SSA to provide death data to all agencies requesting it. Further, the using agencies are to provide the results of their investigations to SSA in order for SSA to update its death database.

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