Congress Concerned with Death-Data Accuracy

Beyond the Numbers

Thursday, July 19, 2012
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The Office of External Relations

Federal offices of inspectors general—including this one—are required to inform the United States Congress of audit and investigative findings.  Members of Congress use the information we provide to hold Federal agencies accountable for their use of taxpayer money; this can be one of many things Congress looks at when deciding how much and what type of funding the agencies receive every year. 

Last week, Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma turned the spotlight on one of our audit reports—and The Washington Times wrote a story on the same issue.  Our Office of Audit found that the Social Security Administration doesn’t always record deaths on all of its records—most notably, the records the agency uses to create the Death Master File.

So, what exactly is the Death Master File, or DMF, and what is it used for?

The DMF is a list of people from Social Security’s records who have been reported to our agency as deceased. The death reports come from government agencies, funeral homes, and relatives, among other sources. The DMF, which is public information, is used by government agencies as well as private entities, such as insurance companies and financial institutions, to verify deaths and prevent fraud.

When the DMF is inaccurate, bad things can happen. Just to name a few: 

  • the Department of Veterans Affairs may continue to pay benefits to deceased veterans;
  • Medicare may reimburse deceased physicians; or
  • the Department of Homeland Security’s E-Verify program may not realize that a company is trying to hire a person using the Social Security number of someone who is dead.

Our auditors recommended that SSA develop ways to identify deceased individuals without excessive cost to taxpayers.  They also recommended that SSA evaluate its current processes and look at ways to correct the 1.2 million records identified by our audit.

SSA responded that it plans to implement several initiatives designed to reduce erroneous reporting and increase the accuracy of all of its records. The Agency is already working with States to increase timeliness and accuracy of death reports.

In a press release, Senator Coburn expressed his concern about our findings:  “The importance of the Death Master File cannot be overstated, especially in these bleak economic times with limited tax dollars to go around.”  

Other Members of Congress have also expressed concerns about the integrity of the Death Master File.  In fact, Inspector General O’Carroll has testified twice this year at congressional hearings about the DMF and related issues. In an upcoming blog post, we will talk more about how we interact with Congress.

Feel free to comment below about the Death Master File or our audit report. As always, don’t put any personally identifiable information in the comments.