SSA to quicken disclosures to states

To cut the time it takes the Social Security Administration to stop paying

benefits once someone has died from months to days, SSA is changing the

rules on when the agency can reveal a Social Security number to states.

Under the plan to modify its disclosure policy, SSA wants to be able

to verify a deceased individual's Social Security number when the death

notice is being drafted. SSA would verify the number electronically via

a secure Internet link between its offices and state officials processing

an electronic death registration.

The agency has already agreed to a pilot program with New Jersey that

starts in December to provide online verification of numbers.

The change will allow greater efficiency and cost savings for SSA, agency

Commissioner Kenneth Apfel said in announcing the policy change. Barring

any opposition, the change will take effect Dec. 5.

"We don't have any numbers [on expected cost savings], but we expect

them to be significant," said Carolyn Cheezum, an agency spokeswoman.

By law, the agency is prohibited from confirming a deceased individual's

Social Security number without prior confirmation of the death. Without

that, the agency has to treat the individual as if he or she was alive — with privacy rights barring disclosure.

Apfel said that because "the individual would be dead, there would be

no adverse effects on individual rights." A top privacy advocate agreed.

Although the routine exchange of information among agencies is prohibited

under the Privacy Act of 1974 — to prevent officials from developing dossiers

on individual citizens — people recognize that some sharing makes sense,

according to Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy

Information Center.

"In this case, because [the disclosure] is closely tied to the administration

of the Social Security program, I think the linkage would be justified,"

he said.

The new system should eliminate the problem of Social Security checks

being sent to a recipient for months after he or she has died — and perhaps

being cashed by others, according to Cheezum.

SSA does not know ex-actly how much this kind of fraud costs the agency

each year, but the inspector general's report to Congress noted that auditors

had carried out more than 320 investigations into "deceased beneficiaries"

in 2000.

The policy change will not help in cases where a death goes unreported

to authorities, Cheezum said. "Obviously, if someone sticks Grandma in the

freezer and doesn't tell anyone, we're not going to know until Grandma somehow

resurfaces," she said.

Nevertheless, the new policy should benefit the public. "The fact is,

the Social Security number is a universal identifier," Cheezum said. "The

sooner that number is verified, and all necessary documents are processed

and a [death] certificate [is] issued, the sooner a family can go about

any personal things they have to take care of — whether it's insurance,

closing down a bank account or closing an estate."

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