WASHINGTON — The federal government pays millions of dollars in farm subsidies each year to farmers who have died, because the Agriculture Department lacks the proper controls to make sure the money it sends is going to the right people, a government audit has found.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service, which oversees the Agriculture Department’s conservation programs, sent out $10.6 million in payments between 2008 and 2012 to more than 1,000 people who had been dead for more than a year, according to the report.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, said the problem involved several agencies within the department.
The Risk Management Agency, which administers the crop-insurance program, paid $22 million to more than 3,400 policyholders who had been dead for at least two years. The GAO said some of those payments might have been made while the farmer was still alive, but that there was no way to know for sure.
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The findings were released as the House and the Senate prepared to meet to work out their differences on a farm bill that would greatly expand some subsidies, like crop insurance. The report raises questions about the ability of the Agriculture Department to monitor the programs for waste, fraud and abuse.
The department generally agreed with the findings in the report but said it disagreed with the characterization that it did not have sufficient controls in place to detect improper payments.
Still, it acknowledged its controls to identify deceased individuals could be applied more effectively.
Controls over crop insurance, in particular, have been questioned after government investigators found a huge fraud ring last year in North Carolina that for decades siphoned more than $100 million from the program. The fraud ring involved insurance agents, adjusters, farmers and dozens of others.
The GAO said the Agriculture Department had some success in finding improper payments.
The department identified payments to nearly 173,000 deceased individuals from 1999 to 2005, the report said. The Agriculture Department recovered about $1 billion in improper payments.
Still, the GAO suggested the Agriculture Department use the Social Security Administration’s Death Master File to identify payments made to dead individuals. The GAO said the agencies used an incomplete version of the data that did not include all deaths.
The Agriculture Department said in May that the Risk Management Agency had begun using a new computer program that compared the full Social Security death data against crop insurance payments.