Few eligible families have applied for federal payment of COVID funeral expenses

On a wet August afternoon in 2020, two caskets – one silver, one white – sat near holes in the ground during a small funeral service in the town of Travelers Rest, SC

The family had just lost a mom and a dad, both to COVID.

“They died five days apart,” says Allison Leaver, who now lives in Maryland with her husband and children.

When Leaver’s parents died that summer, it was a crushing tragedy. And there was no life insurance or burial policy to help cover the expenses.

“We just thought we were going to have to put this on our credit cards and pay it off, and that’s how we were going to handle it,” the public school teacher said with a resigned laugh.

But then, in April 2021, FEMA offered to reimburse funeral expenses — up to $9,000, which is about the average cost of a funeral. And it was retroactive.

Leaver applied immediately.

“If this horrible thing were to happen, at least we weren’t going to lose money,” she says.

A year after the program began, the federal government has provided more than $2 billion to cover funeral costs for COVID victims. More than 300,000 families have received reimbursement, averaging $6,500. But less than half of the families have started the applications.

Many surviving family members have encountered difficulties or are still unaware that the money is available.

For those who know

FEMA launched a large call center, hiring 4,000 contractors in Denver. Survivors should call to initiate the process, as applications are not being accepted online. FEMA received a million calls on the first day, leaving many waiting on hold.

Once Leaver spoke to a representative, she began assembling death certificates and receipts from the funeral home and cemetery. She downloaded them online – and heard nothing for months.

Eventually, she called and learned that the receipts she had submitted bore different signatures – one from her husband, one from her sister. It was a problem. Even though it was a joint funeral, in order to get the full amount per parent, the government required separate receipts. Leaver says she was frustrated, but determined to make it “against all odds.” Besides, she said, it was summer vacation and she had time.

But many have not applied or do not have time.

Administrative challenges discouraged some participation, especially for those whose loved ones died early in the pandemic, says Jaclyn Rothenberg, FEMA’s chief spokeswoman.

“Some people with death certificates didn’t necessarily have COVID as the cause of death,” she says. “We have a responsibility to our taxpayer stewards to make sure that’s the cause.”

Rothenberg says FEMA tries to work with everyone. Even though the agency has spent the originally budgeted $2 billion, it says there is a new pot of stimulus funding from the American Rescue Plan Act.

For those who don’t know

NPR analyzed FEMA data against official COVID deaths through March 15, 2022. Washington, DC, led the nation with claims for 77% of deaths. States clustered in the South had the highest participation rate in the program, with North Carolina approaching claims for two-thirds of deaths. Other states remain well below a 50% participation rate. In Oregon and Washington, less than one in three deaths resulted in a claim.

It’s usually not a question of eligibility. There is no income limit and life insurance does not prevent participation. And there is still no time limit. One of the few disqualifiers (detailed here) is if the funeral was prepaid.

“We need people to keep helping us spread the word,” Rothenberg says. “We know we still have work to do.”

FEMA is launching an awareness campaign to promote the program because there is plenty of money left. The agency focuses on the populous states of California, New York, Pennsylvania and Texas, and its efforts target vulnerable populations.

The government also relies on community groups linked to those who need to know the money the most.

COVID Survivors for Change, founded by Chris Kocher, is helping people navigate the process, including through a Facebook webinar.

“We were able to connect people with some of the survivors who had already gone through this process just to help them through it,” he says.

Many just need someone to fill out the application for them.

Stephanie Smith of Carlisle, Ky., lost her father to COVID. His mother, who was 83 at the time, didn’t stand a chance.

“She’s a very smart and brave woman, but she’s never used a computer,” Smith said.

At a minimum, the application requires scanning or faxing.

“She probably wouldn’t have attempted it because the whole process would have been overwhelming for her,” she says.

But Smith was able to jump through the hoops without too much trouble. And $9,000, she says, is enough to make life considerably easier as her mother adjusts to being a COVID widow.

This story comes from NPR’s health reporting partnership with Nashville Public Radio and Kaiser Health News (KHN).

Copyright 2022 WPLN News

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