Federal Benefits Payments: Seeking to Right the Process
One small business is providing innovative services to identify, verify and document deceased and incarcerated individuals to help rectify a widespread problem of improper federal benefits payments.
By Keturah Finch
This year, about 2.5 million deaths will occur in the United States, and millions more will become incarcerated. In a country where almost half of its citizens receive some type of government benefit, one wonders: what happens to a benefit payment after someone dies or becomes incarcerated. Of course the logical answer would be that it would automatically cease or become suspended. However, far too often, the process for gathering and distributing deceased and incarcerated information can be an arduous task that varies widely across state and local levels. Each state has different regulations for reporting deceased and incarcerated information as it is filtered upward through the local, county, state and then to the federal level. The inconsistency in reporting methods and fluctuations in how often deceased and/or incarcerated data is reported federally can cause challenges to government agencies that are cutting the checks.
Many agencies rely heavily on the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) Death Master File (DMF), a master record of all social-security-bearing individuals that have died, to be informed of a death. But, it takes time for SSA to collect this information, and sometimes the information that is received contains errors, or discrepancies that can go unverified. Furthermore, current regulations prevent SSA from sharing the full version of the DMF with all government agencies. What results is often a cyclical sharing of inaccurate information and thus a higher risk and occurrence of improper payments. Central Research Inc., a service disabled veteran-owned small business from Northwest Arkansas, offers federal and state benefit-paying agencies a unique solution to improper payment challenges when it comes to deceased and incarcerated beneficiary information.
Central Research’s main service offering is deceased and incarcerated audits, death certificates, and inmate verification records. With a diverse client portfolio spanning several prime contracts in the state and federal government, the firm’s unique niche of services results in mega cost savings, reduced administrative burdens, and greater operational efficiencies to clients. Over the past decade, the company has been recognized for quality, growth and leadership and is a testament to the role a small business can play assisting the nation. In 2012 it was named a U.S. Chamber of Commerce Dream Big Small Business of the Year Blue Ribbon Award Winner. Moreover, Central Research is committed to hiring veterans; more than 45 percent of the firm’s 60 employees are veterans, disabled veterans, or spouses of veterans. Its mission is to identify, verify and document deceased and incarcerated statuses to reduce the erroneous spending of taxpayer dollars, and to free available funds to be refocused on citizens and services that are truly in need.
ADDRESSING A WIDESPREAD PROBLEM
The statistics are astounding. In 2012, according to the U.S. government, federal-wide improper payments totaled a staggering $108 billion. The causes are multi-symptomatic. But many times, federal benefit-paying agencies are making wrongful payments to deceased beneficiaries long after their death has occurred. There are many media articles published describing a gross overpayment of benefits to incarcerated individuals, who continued to receive unemployment, disability, or food stamps despite being behind bars for years.
Over the past five years, attention to Improper Payments has gained rising momentum. In 2010, President Obama initiated the Improper Payment Elimination and Recovery Act which placed greater responsibility on federal agencies to prevent improper payments and to recapture erroneous payments from constituents. The federal government has launched websites, such as www.paymentaccuracy.gov that are designed to offer greater transparency to the public about improper payment challenges. And in 2012, the U.S. Department of the Treasury “Do Not Pay” web portal was established. It offers federal benefit-paying agencies better access to discredited beneficiary information.
Despite these positive strides, improper payments continue at an alarming rate. This past summer alone reports surfaced illustrating a federal government-wide issue with improper payment challenges to deceased individuals. In July 2013, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report stating that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Farm Service Agency (FSA) paid $3.3 million to deceased farmers. Also under the USDA umbrella, it was reported that the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) spent $10.6 million in payments to 1,103 deceased individuals for one or more years after their death. There are more examples. In a report that surfaced in June 2013, it was revealed that the SSA paid 1,546 deceased people up to $31 million. Furthermore, if appropriate measures were not immediately implemented to fix these mistakes, the SSA would have made an additional $15 million in improper payments to deceased over the next 12 months.
Lawmakers in both the House and Senate recently introduced a bipartisan bill to strengthen federal agencies access to, and sharing of information about, deceased beneficiaries. The Improper Payments Agency Cooperation Enhancement Act of 2013 would promote interagency sharing of deceased information.
PROVIDING DATA SOLUTIONS
Central Research is currently providing deceased and incarcerated resolutions as an affiliated subcontractor to the one of the largest collection programs in the federal government. The firm works with the majority of large and small private collection agencies that are contracted with the client to provide administrative resolutions on defaulted, delinquent accounts. As with most collection programs, the client writes off collection efforts for accounts belonging to deceased or incarcerated individuals. When the client is unaware that an individual is actually deceased (or incarcerated), they will unknowingly spend time and effort attempting to collect on accounts that, in reality, are no longer valid.
Its services provide the client with an authentic verification of a deceased or incarcerated status by delivering a final copy of a death certificate or inmate verification form that results in the official closing of the account. Central Research also works to provide improper payment solutions on the state level. It is currently supporting a state retirement pension program to identify and restrict payments to deceased account holders in “real time” after a death has occurred. By providing accurate, up-to-date information as quickly as possible after an individual’s death, the client can take appropriate steps to close an individual’s account and prevent releasing unnecessary payments.
Client beneficiary data is very dynamic. It is constantly changing. As populations’ age individuals are added or removed, and likewise, when an individuals’ status changes, such as with an incarceration. Due to the frequent changes within client population files, Central Research monitors client beneficiary data on a monthly basis. Clients access a secure, web-based portal to upload beneficiary files. Central Research runs this data through its proprietary database to create flagged entries of deceased or incarcerated individuals. The database is unique in that it contains millions of deceased and incarcerated records, and like its clients’ data, is constantly being updated to adjust to daily population changes. Central Research keeps a pulse on deceased and incarcerated population trends by pulling from a variety of different sources. The unique matching logic the company utilizes provides daily updates from public information that is published on the local level. It also receives weekly updates from the DMF, as well as some State Death Index information. Due to the unique access to greater volumes of deceased information, Central Research is able to capture a higher percentage of the 7,000 deaths that occur each day within the United States.
After a client file is scrubbed; the results are sent a team of researchers. From the company’s headquarters in Lowell, Ark., a team of researchers track down flagged accounts to locate and obtain a death certificate or inmate verification record. This can be tedious as it involves reaching out to state and vital records offices, funeral homes and family members. But the result is well worth it: a legal document that authentically verifies an individuals deceased or incarcerated status to officially close a beneficiary’s account.
SMALL BUSINESS CULTURE
The company’s achievements are largely attributed to its small business culture. As a company of 60 employees, it is able to spend more time and attention focusing on clients’ needs and expectations. One element to its great success is the homegrown relationships it has developed nationwide with state and local vital records offices. Also, being a small business preserves the company’s ability to be flexible and responsive to its clients. This is critical, since while large businesses may have more resources they can sometimes be inhibited by their size and may not always have the ability to be as nimble as a small business.
The future looks bright for Central Research, which has continued to grow despite the tough economy of recent years. In 2009, the firm has expanded its services to include contractor-managed specialized administrative support, including Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and Privacy Act (PA) support after winning an agency-wide prime contract in one of the federal government’s largest FOIA programs. Like so many small businesses supporting the nation, the company aspires to grow and succeed in response to its mission to provide the government with more efficient access to deceased and incarcerated beneficiary information to help reduce improper payments—so that those deserving of the relief are ensured they receive it.