A multibillion-dollar funeral assistance program for COVID-19 victims reimbursed families for some ineligible expenses that included flowers, catering and transportation, according to a report released by federal investigators Monday.
The Department of Homeland Security inspector general’s office issued a “management alert” to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which runs the program. It called on FEMA’s administrator to modify the agency’s operating procedures to comply with longstanding policy.
“FEMA is putting millions of taxpayer dollars at an elevated risk of waste and abuse by reimbursing funeral expenses identified as ineligible by its own policies,” the inspector general’s report said.
As of March 15, the disaster relief agency said it had approved just over $2 billion in COVID-19 funeral assistance awards under a special program authorized by a late 2020 emergency aid package that was supposed to cover expenses incurred through the end of that year. At the time, FEMA said it was launching a new paid media campaign to advertise the funeral assistance program to get money to more households that missed out initially.
“FEMA’s COVID-19 Funeral Assistance program has helped provide over 300,000 people with critical financial relief during a time of such unexpected, unimaginable and widespread loss,” FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell said in a statement. “Our new outreach campaign is designed to reach families, especially across underserved communities, where the cost of a funeral can be a financial burden to a loved one.”
And there’s plenty more aid available: In March 2021, another larger relief package reopened the funeral assistance program for the duration of any presidential disaster declaration related to COVID-19, and authorized FEMA to tap what it needs for funeral reimbursements out of a $50 billion cash infusion that’s good through Sept. 30, 2025.
Before doling out any further assistance, however, the inspector general’s report called on Criswell to issue revised procedures that align with longstanding policy.
The report said FEMA approved reimbursements for items that were “expressly excluded” under the agency’s Individual Assistance Program and Policy Guide, which governs how funeral aid dollars are allocated.
Ineligible expenses included a $1,050 charge for flowers, a $420 charge or printed materials including prayer cards, a $1,300 charge for a catered reception, and a $3,760 charge for transportation that included “two lead escort vehicles, a limousine, and a horse and carriage,” the report said.
The report did not offer an estimate of how much federal aid may have been spent inappropriately. But it said 59% of 166 approved applications that the inspector general’s office reviewed included ineligible expenses.
The report also said FEMA had applied more liberal criteria for pandemic-related funeral expense reimbursements than it used in other disasters, such as last year’s collapse of an oceanfront condo building in Surfside, Florida, that killed 98 people.
In the case of pandemic relief, FEMA instructed its employees to reimburse for virtually all verifiable funeral expenses with few exceptions, such as airfare for an individual transporting remains.
In its response to the IG report, FEMA officials wrote that the disaster relief agency had never attempted to provide funeral expense reimbursements on such a scale – typically processing “several hundred” such applications per year, compared with some 300,000 during the pandemic.
The agency needed to be “flexible and expedient” in delivering relief in line with lawmakers’ intent, the response said, adding that curbing eligible expenses now would be unfair to future applicants.
FEMA officials said they had apprised Congress of its plans to expand its list of eligible expenses, the report said. But the inspector general found no evidence of such notification.
FEMA also claimed, in responding to the report, that it has authority to deviate from its policy during the pandemic. But the inspector general said FEMA provided no rationale for that claim and that the agency’s Office of Counsel did not review or approve its pandemic operating procedures.