Pandemic funeral assistance is an underutilized program

Perhaps it was because Kerri Raissian’s father spent time in two hospitals and a nursing facility in the last 12 days of his life. Or maybe it was because he had only been in the ER for a few hours before he died. Anyway, Covid-19 was not listed on his death certificate.

Ms Raissian has spent the past month trying to change that.

At stake, thousands of dollars of a program run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency intended to ease the financial burden of grieving families who have lost loved ones to the pandemic. The government will reimburse up to $9,000 in funeral expenses for those who have died from the coronavirus – as long as there is proper documentation.

“I understand the need to FEMA to guard against fraud, which is what these death certificate criteria are supposed to do,” said Ms. Raissian, associate professor of public policy at the University of Connecticut, who spent hours on the phone trying to retrieve the records. father’s medical records and speak to the doctor who pronounced him dead.

But the strict requirements and chaos surrounding so many deaths are problematic, she said: ‘This policy virtually guarantees that many people who qualify for these benefits will not get them.’

More than 900,000 Covid-related deaths have been reported in the United States, but less than half have been claimed, according to FEMA data. About 273,000 candidates had been paid, for a total of $1.78 billion, in Monday.

There is no deadline to apply, so eligible families can still apply for the assistance. But that can mean browsing requirements for documents that aren’t always easy to get.

It hasn’t been easy for Ms Raissian, who is trying to recover some of the $13,000 needed to bury her father, Max McGaughey. Mr McGaughey, 86, died just after Christmas, less than two weeks after being admitted to a hospital in Columbus, Texas with Covid-19. He was discharged to a skilled nursing facility but was rushed to a hospital in Katy when his oxygen level crashed. He died of a heart attack a few hours later.

But Covid-19 was not on Mr McGaughey’s death certificate, an oversight his daughter tried to correct by getting the proper documentation from her doctors at the first hospital and nursing facility so she could send him to the hospital where he died. Then the certificate can be updated through the Texas Department of State health services.

“It’s bureaucratic and it prevents closure, but we also really need the death benefits,” Ms Raissian said.

The median funeral cost was nearly $8,000 in 2021, according to the National Association of Funeral Directors. This is a heavy financial burden, especially for low-income families, who have been hardest hit by the pandemic, or those who face expenses much sooner than they expected.

Ellen Wynn McBrayer, president of Jones-Wynn Funeral Homes & Crematory near Atlanta, helped a woman with two young children plan the funeral of her husband, who died of the virus. The reimbursement program made sudden expenses easier to manage.

“A young family doesn’t really plan for the end of life,” said Ms. Wynn McBrayer. “They can have a tombstone to visit at their father’s grave. It was a huge blessing in the middle of the storm.

FEMA said nearly 415,000 people have requested funeral assistance. About 97% of those who provided all the documents had been approved by Feb. 2, the agency said.

Jaclyn Rothenberg, director of public affairs at FEMA, acknowledged that some families had encountered obstacles, but said the government agency was responsible for doing due diligence.

“We are always looking for ways to improve our process and make it easier for applicants, especially during these difficult times, she said. FEMA has also hired a contractor to help better communicate about the program and how it works, Ms. Rothenberg added.

Applicants can make the process easier by having all the required documents ready when they apply, which starts with a phone call to FEMA. To file an application, a person must be a U.S. citizen, non-citizen national, or qualified alien. The deceased person does not need to meet these conditions, but must have died in the United States or one of its territories.

To be eligible, expenses must have been incurred after Jan. 20, 2020. All expenses for a deceased person must be included in the same claim, FEMA said. If more than one person paid expenses, one of them must submit the claim, but include proof of expenses for all who contributed. (One co-applicant is permitted.) Reimbursements are capped at $35,500 if you have lost multiple loved ones.

Death certificates issued after May 16, 2020 must mention Covid-19 as the direct or indirect cause. For coronavirus deaths before that – when there was less testing at the start of the pandemic – there is more flexibility: Applicants can provide a signed statement explaining the link of the original certifier of death (or doctor medical examiner or coroner where the person died).

The program will not reimburse bills paid with assistance from another source, such as prepaid funeral contracts or funeral and funeral insurance. But applicants may still be eligible for FEMA assistance if those sources did not cover all costs.

Dealing with emotionally traumatized paperwork is difficult, but keeping clear records can make the application process easier. Ms Wynn McBrayer, the funeral home director, said survivors who intended to apply for the scheme should ensure they use their full legal name on receipts to match what would be used on the application.

“It’s a blessing,” she said of the audience, “if you can find a blessing in the rubble.”

Karen Bopp, who lost her 94-year-old mother to Covid last year, learned about the scheme through an email from her US rep that arrived just hours before her mother’s death . Ms Bopp’s mother, Mary, died of heart disease exacerbated by coronavirus nearly four months after testing positive over Christmas.

“We didn’t want to put her in the hospital because there was all this fuss about saying goodbye on a Zoom call, so we kept her at home,” Ms Bopp said, adding that her son, Tyler, did most of the caregiving. “The Covid thing was a real shock. She wasn’t ready to leave.

Even before making her request, Ms. Bopp had to correct the death certificate; it listed diastolic heart failure as the cause of death, not Covid-19. This was perhaps the easiest hurdle to overcome – her mother’s palliative care provider quickly resolved the issue.

Ms Bopp began the application process in late April, but was not reimbursed until October – far longer than the roughly 70 days which FEMA said was the median time between application and an eligibility decision. .

Even with the corrected death certificate, she said, FEMA initially denied the claim because the agency could not find Covid listed as the cause. There were other hurdles: After fixing a problem with a hard-to-read burial receipt, there was a problem with the coffin receipt.

Mrs. Bopp’s mother, a Catholic, had requested that it be made by an order of Benedictine monks who had produced a coffin for a friend’s funeral. Ms. Bopp had to call the Abbey and eventually coordinated a conference call with her business manager and FEMA. The problem took over a month to resolve.

“I have correspondence with at least 15, possibly 20 people, for submitting documents and having them rejected,” said Ms. Bopp, a reading and math facilitator at an Illinois elementary school.

After more than four months of back and forth – Ms Bopp said she had logged into her FEMA account more than 31 times – she was reimbursed for the full cost of the funeral, around $8,000.

The money arrived within weeks and Ms Bopp was able to repay a home equity loan her mother had taken out which the family had used to pay funeral costs. Once the loan was repaid, the family was able to settle her mother’s estate.

“The process was much more difficult and took a long time than expected,” Ms Bopp said, “so it was a great relief to be able to finalize everything.”

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