The U.S. government has a problem with dead people. For one thing, it pays them way too much money.
In the past few years, Social Security paid $133 million to beneficiaries who were deceased. The federal employee retirement system paid more than $400 million to retirees who had passed away. And an aid program spent $3.9 million in federal money to pay heating and air-conditioning bills for more than 11,000 of the dead.
These mistakes are part of a surprising glitch at the heart of the federal bureaucracy. Because of a jury-rigged and outdated system meant to track deaths, the government has trouble determining exactly which Americans are deceased.
As a result, Washington is bedeviled by both the living dead and the dead living.
The task of tracking deaths for the federal bureaucracy is an enormous one; about 2.5 million Americans die each year. Federal officials say the vast majority of these cases are handled correctly: The death is recorded. Government money is no longer sent to that person.
But not always. In fact, glitches in the system have paid more than $700 million to the dead, according to government audits performed since 2008.
The trouble with dead people often begins with something called the Death Master File, which is kept by the Social Security Administration. Every day new reports are added, provided by relatives, funeral homes and the state agencies that issue official death certificates.
The list contains 90 million reports.
The problem is that not all of them are correct.
Now, after years of inattention, President Obama and two senators have laid out ideas to improve the system. In his 2014 budget, Obama requested $22 million to improve the death reports that come in from states by upgrading their systems to transmit faster and more accurate data.
In the Senate, Carper and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) have written a bill that would require all federal agencies to check the Death Master File before paying benefits. It would also give all agencies access to the full file, not just the partial one. And it would require new efforts to make sure the data in the file are accurate.