The federal government knows when people are born, but not always when they die

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You’ve heard the stories of people receiving social security payouts after they’ve died. It all stems from whether Social Security Administration has the latest and most complete death records. The problem is those are administered by the states. Last year, Congress asked the National Academy of Public Administration to examine the sources of data for social security...

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Best listening experience is on Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Subscribe to Federal Drive’s daily audio interviews on Apple Podcasts or PodcastOne.

You’ve heard the stories of people receiving social security payouts after they’ve died. It all stems from whether Social Security Administration has the latest and most complete death records. The problem is those are administered by the states. Last year, Congress asked the National Academy of Public Administration to examine the sources of data for social security and how well it can access them.  The Federal Drive with Tom Temin  spoke to study co-author Barbara Bovbjerg,

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: This comes up year after year. And always the press makes a big story of dead people getting Social Security benefits. I mean, the dollars in the grand scheme of things are not that big. But it’s one of those problems that you would think would have been rubbed out decades ago, simply get the data from the States period, the end? What’s the issue here?

Barbara Bovbjerg: Well, the issue is not really at the SSA with regard to use of the data. It’s broader use by the federal government. So death data are really critical to program integrity. By which I mean, if you’re administering a benefit program, you want to make sure that the money is going only to people who are eligible for the benefit, and only in the amount for which they’re eligible. And overpaying is really an issue, as I know, you know, from some of your prior broadcasts, and when the press puts out a story about how we know they paid this dead person, everyone gets very upset. And it’s very embarrassing. And you’d never want that to happen, unless it’s a survivor benefit.

Tom Temin: In some ways, even though it might be small dollars compared to all of the federal improper payments, it has the effect of eroding people’s faith that the government can administer anything properly, if it sends money to the deceased.

Barbara Bovbjerg: That’s right. It sounds incompetent to people that in the 80s, Social Security was asked to make sure that they create a death file to make sure that they check records against that. And initially, they were getting data from funeral parlor directors, family, sort of off the cuff kind of data. And several years ago, they were told they needed to make that information public. And since they own the information, they did that, and you could subscribe to the federal death files. But over time, they started getting it electronically  from the state vital records offices, which is much faster, it’s much more reliable. And of course, social security checks the data when they get it. So the name and social security numbers don’t match, it kicks out and goes back to the vital records office for correction, they have a much more complete file. But because those data are owned by the vital records offices, which are mainly there are 57 of them, they now cannot just give it to others. So increasingly, the file that people might get via subscription, or some entities in the federal government use is much smaller and less comprehensive.

Tom Temin: Well, let me ask you why the vital records that are maintained by states, I would think that’s public information at the state level, is there an issue with it being public information at the federal level? Or is it in fact public at the state level?

Barbara Bovbjerg: That’s a tricky question, because you do not have privacy rights as a dead person. But when you go to get a birth certificate, a death certificate, things like that, from vital records, in nearly all jurisdictions, you need to pay for it, there is a fee for that. And that is because vital records offices get something around 70% of their funding from fees. And they are allowed to charge the federal government for that information. And SSA works with a representative of the 57 jurisdictions to negotiate a price so they pay them. And then SSA can also under current law, share that information with 10 federal agencies that manage benefit programs. And they can charge them for what it costs SSA to prepare the file and all that sort of the administrative stuff, but they can’t charge them for what they pay the vital records offices, and the VRS maintain ownership. And in fact, that was a fundamental piece of our work was to say, we are going to presume, and the federal government presumes that the VRS own these data, what does it cost to get them and how extensively can they be shared?

Tom Temin: Then you weren’t necessarily looking at just Social Security’s issue with completeness of data but the fact of whether they can share that data from the VRAs, vital records offices, throughout these 10 agencies that they’re entitled to by law.

Barbara Bovbjerg: But Tom, the plot thickens because there is a federal agency within the Treasury department called Do Not Pay. And its whole thing is preventing and detecting improper payments across the federal government. That’s their motto, but they don’t have access to the full death records because they’re not technically a benefit paying agency. So hence this issue. When Congress passed the 2021 Appropriations Act, they put in a provision not only to require this study, as you noted at the beginning of our conversation, but also to at the end of 2023, SSA needs to provide that file to the Do Not Pay entity, which will make their job much more effective, much easier. And they will start to charge the agencies who receive the data, not only for the administrative cost of preparing the file, but also their share of what it costs SSA to get the information from the states. But that only goes for three years. And then if nothing else is done, it will revert back to the current system. Hence, they asked us to take a look at how is all this working? What are the issues? And what options could we provide for the future?

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Barbara Bovbjerg, she’s panel chair of the study panel at the National Academy of Public Administration looking at the data issues with social security. Let me just back up a moment, though, if SSA  is sort of ridiculed, if you will, for paying out benefits to the deceased, it seems like there’s a completeness issue with what they’re getting from the states to begin with. Did you look at that?

Barbara Bovbjerg: It’s very, very tiny, the number of mistakes in the file. And I think that when you hear about this at SSA, is just so unusual, I can’t remember the last time I heard something like that, that involved SSA. Because they clean the data, we even looked at whether people are reported as dead who are not dead. And if that happens to you, you go to a security field office and show who you are. And so you can actually count those instances, it’s a very tiny, tiny number.

Tom Temin: The issue then is for that data, which is mostly complete, pretty good, clean, to be able to go to Do Not Pay at Treasury, and from there to a lot of the agencies that also have benefits programs that at this point, don’t get the benefit from that data.

Barbara Bovbjerg: Well, and the question is, who is going to send it to those agencies? And that’s why we looked at these different options. In all options, social security gets the data, because they need it, and they have a system and they can clean it, they get the data, but social security could give it to Do Not Pay and then Do Not Pay could be the central entity that distributes the data. I mean, that’s one of the options to consider.

Tom Temin: And what are some of the other options to consider and what did you feel was the best option?

Barbara Bovbjerg: Well, we didn’t make recommendations, Congress was very clear that they wanted our options and not our recommendations, we looked at actually five options, but we really only analyzed in detail three of them. So the first one is just doing what we’re doing now, standing pat, the second one is what we just talked about is having Do Not Pay centrally. And the third one is to have the central distributor, the entity that represents the vital records offices in these negotiations, which is NAPHSIS, the National Association for Public Health Statistics and Information Systems. And they have a couple of different systems that have the basic death data, as well as other things, you know, cause of death, things like that. So we looked at having them centrally, we looked at a couple of other options that involved the data going directly to Do Not Pay from NAPHSIS, or having the agencies negotiate with the states themselves. And we thought, particularly the latter one just seems inefficient. The one with sending it both to social security and to Do Not Pay just seems like an overlap and duplication to use a GAO term.

Tom Temin: So basically, then it seems like the most viable options are all the VROs send their data somewhere. And that somewhere then distributed to everyone that needs it in the federal government.

Barbara Bovbjerg: Correct. And an issue for this process is what does it cost the federal government to get the data?

Tom Temin: Let me ask you about that.  What does it cost to social security at this point to get that data? Are we talking about hundreds of 1000s millions of billions of dollars? What’s the scale of dollars here?

Barbara Bovbjerg: We’re talking millions, not billions, but millions. You know, there’s several million deaths a year And if the data comes in right away, they get $4 a record. It’s not a huge amount of money compared to other things in the federal government.

Tom Temin: So they can’t quite negotiate it down to say, a buck a body?

Barbara Bovbjerg: Only if they’re not providing it timely or if they’re not providing it electronically. But there is a negotiation, it’s not really based on cost. Because as I’m sure you’re aware, there aren’t a lot of government entities, they’re doing cost accounting on this particular thing in the VROs, so they don’t really know what they can really separate it from their overall budget. I do want to note that on the state side, they feel like they might be under compensated if all these federal agencies are can get their data. But they also worry about data security, there are legal requirements, some of the states for assuring data security, and they can’t really assure it, if they don’t even know who it’s going to, or they don’t have the ability to have any kind of internal control.

Tom Temin:But essentially, the purpose of the study as envisioned by Congress was to find a way for all federal agencies that pay out benefits, to benefit from the data of knowing who is deceased, and thereby cutting their improper payments.

Barbara Bovbjerg: Yes, it’s certainly to consider whether there are other types of federal agencies who need the information. For example, we found that the Office of Child Support and Enforcement does not have access because they don’t actually pay benefits, they collect child support, but it would be useful to have access to the death files for any kinds of investigations they were doing. But that wouldn’t qualify currently. So there are some of those issues as well.

Tom Temin: So the NAPA study now then goes to Congress that was your client in this, and then it would be up to Congress to decide what if any legislative solutions, it would have to getting this data in some efficient manner and promulgating it throughout the government in some efficient manner?

Barbara Bovbjerg:  I’m hoping that this will prove useful to them, and they will do something here. I think that this is an important intergovernmental program, but as with all inter-governmental efforts, it’s complicated. And you’ve got the divergent issues and priorities of the federal government and 57 other entities. It’s a thorny problem to deal with, but I feel pretty confident that we provide some tools for them to address and it may seem like not a big deal, death files, but it’s really important to program integrity and ensuring money is spent the way it should be spent.

Tom Temin: Barbara Bovbjerg is chair of the study panel at the National Academy of Public Administration looking at death records and how they’re used.

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