Patience needed in filing COVID-19 funeral claims
The Federal Emergency Management Agency began accepting applications Monday for reimbursement of funeral expenses for people who have died since Jan. 20, 2020, of COVID-19.
Billions of dollars were allocated for these expenses as part of the American Rescue Plan Act. According to FEMA, COVID-19 funeral reimbursements are available to U.S. citizens, to non-
citizen nationals or to qualified aliens who paid funeral expenses of individuals whose deaths in the United States or its territories likely were the result of COVID-19.
The program will provide reimbursement for funeral or burial costs up to $9,000 per decedent.
We believe this may be one of the most effective uses of the federal disaster relief funds because it provides assistance on the ground level directly to families who experienced losses of loved ones during this horrible and ongoing pandemic. In many of these COVID-19 cases, death came swiftly and unexpectedly.
Local funeral directors tell us the average costs for funeral expenses and a headstone total about $10,000.
Further exacerbating the high cost is the fact that these funerals were being planned at a time when many people already were struggling financially due to downturns in the economy or pandemic-related job loss and cutbacks. Undoubtedly, funeral and burial expenses brought financial struggles beyond the emotional hardships these families already were experiencing.
What many Americans may not realize, though, is that while this federal funeral expense reimbursement program is new for the COVID-19 pandemic, it is not new for FEMA overall.
For many years — long before COVID-19 — FEMA already had been offering disaster financial assistance for funeral and burial expenses as a part of the agency’s normal disaster assistance process, according to an agency spokeswoman. According to the www.FEMA.gov website, each of these serious needs must be caused directly by the designated disaster.
We caution, though, that this program could become ripe for fraudulent claims. Sadly, someone always is seeking ways to benefit from the pain and suffering of others.
That’s why we are pleased to see in-depth requirements set forth in the program requiring proof that the death was COVID-19 related, along with receipts for funeral costs. Bearing in mind that this program is taxpayer funded, those overseeing the award of these funds must be vigilant in the verification process, in order to ensure these funds get directly to the families who deserve and need the help — and only those families.
Further, it must be noted there is a very distinct difference in dying OF COVID-19 and dying WITH COVID-19. We urge this distinction to be probed and questions raised before doling out these reimbursements. Only that will ensure the funds are being allocated appropriately to those who are deserving, not to just anyone who makes the request.
A special toll-free phone number — 844-684-6333 (TTY: 800-462-7585) 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. weekdays — now has been set up by FEMA to handle the initial claims. No online applications are being accepted.
The agency advises it is receiving high call volumes, creating some technical issues. FEMA asks callers to remain patient or try back later.
Once connected, the application process takes about 20 minutes, and FEMA says its workers “will not rush through calls.”
The process seems lengthy, but it is important for both the caller and the U.S. taxpayers that all the correct information and necessary documentation is collected. It will be worth it for everyone in the long run.