Government pays millions to dead

WASHINGTON — The Social Security Administration has continued to pay millions of dollars in benefits to dead people, while other elderly U.S. residents are at risk of losing badly needed aid because they're improperly recorded as deceased, federal investigators warn in a report.

The consequences of either bureaucratic error can be severe.

"The addition of erroneous death entries can lead to benefit termination, cause severe financial hardship and distress to affected individuals," investigators with the Social Security Administration's Office of Inspector General noted in the report, which was quietly released Sunday.

Taxpayers are losing money when benefits are paid to the deceased. Individuals get into trouble when they're prematurely pronounced dead.

In Southern California and elsewhere last year, investigators analyzed 305 Social Security beneficiaries who were recorded as deceased in their Social Security Administration files. At least 140 of them were alive.

Investigators say more than 6,000 Social Security beneficiaries are recorded as being deceased. An unknown number of them are still, in fact, alive.

The identified problems are only a fraction of the nation's 50 million Social Security beneficiaries, and Social Security officials say they've instituted protective measures.

Social Security officials have recovered some of the improperly paid money. They further agreed to investigate "as quickly as possible based on available resources" the correct status of 6,733 potentially deceased individuals identified in the audit.

"We will investigate the alert and follow-up systems to assess how these cases were missed by our current controls," James A. Winn, chief of staff for the Social Security Administration, said in the agency's formal response.

Those affected can feel the problem acutely even if they're still getting Social Security checks, because Social Security death records can be used by other agencies.

Several individuals told investigators they "had to prove to the Internal Revenue Service they were not deceased before receiving a refund," investigators said.