Agencies are still wrangling over death data

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Information about deaths is a key part of administering programs like Social Security, but how data is collected and shared comes with questions.

Who in the government gets to know when you're dead?

That's the fundamental question in a congressionally-requested report on how death records are shared across government for benefits administration and other program delivery purposes. Lawmakers and government officials have been wrangling over how to best collect and share death data for years, according to the report from the National Academy of Public Administration released Monday.

State vital records offices collect and maintain death records, but that data is critical for government programs on the federal level as well.

“Accurate and timely information on citizens who have passed away plays a key role in the federal government’s ability to reduce improper payment of Social Security benefits, identify those who are eligible for survivor benefits, and strengthen program administration,” said Terry Gerton, president and CEO of the academy, in a statement.

Congress asked for this report in the government funding law for fiscal year 2021 after reports of stimulus checks going out to deceased individuals at the start of the pandemic.

Currently, the Social Security Administration works primarily with state vital records offices to get death data.

SSA also shares this data with some federal and state government agencies, but this isn’t a core part of its mission and its sharing is limited. 

The Do Not Pay system at the Treasury Department doesn’t have access to the full file of death information, despite its role as a no-cost service agencies can use to verify someone’s eligibility for a payment with its data matching and analytics services.

The report digs into potential alternatives, but the expert panel that authored it doesn’t offer a recommendation for what might be best.

“The diverse interests of different stakeholders, including the states and federal agencies, have made it difficult to resolve this issue,” the report states. “There is no perfect solution when it comes to collecting and disseminating state death data. The panel’s analysis shows the advantages and disadvantages of each potential option.”

One option is to stick with the current system. However, the appropriations act for fiscal year 2021 requires SSA to share its death data with Do Not Pay for the sake of preventing improper payments starting in December 2023 for three years.

The Government Accountability Office recommended that Congress give the Do Not Pay portal access to SSA death records in 2016.

Another option would be to tap Do Not Pay as the sharer of death records. 

A non-governmental data clearinghouse, perhaps the nonprofit that currently acts as an intermediary between state offices and SSA, could also be the distributor of data for federal agencies.

Among the questions to be sorted out are pay, with state offices already concerned about whether they’re being adequately compensated for the data. These state vital records offices also often face chronic funding issues. 

SSA was previously also reimbursed only for a fraction of the total costs of purchasing, keeping and sharing this data, the report states, although the 2021 appropriations law also requires agencies getting the data to fully reimburse SSA for the cost.

In 2019, the Social Security Advisory Board asked Congress to move the responsibility of collecting and sharing death data to Do Not Pay, arguing that the program is too expensive for SSA and that DNP is more well suited to the task.

The panel, however, does suggest that SSA needs to still receive death data directly from states, given its role in fixing errors and improving data accuracy. If the sharing role moves to Do Not Pay, SSA should still be the collector of the death records, just not the one sharing that information out with other agencies, the report states.

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