SSA falls short on death e-record collection, official says

Only 30 states currently contribute to Electronic Death Registration database

After nearly a decade of work, only 30 states contribute to the Social Security Administration’s electronic death record database that can be used to quickly check whether federal payments are going to dead people, according to a senior agency official.

The SSA began assembling digital death data in 2002, reimbursing states $2.80 for each record. Despite those reimbursements, 20 states do not participate in reporting the deaths directly to the central database, and instead report via other channels, either manually or electronically, Kelly Croft, deputy commissioner for systems at the SSA, told the Senate Homeland Security Committee's Federal Financial Management Subcommittee May 25.

The panel examined the Obama administration’s recent effort to reduce the estimated $125 billion in improper federal payments annually. Those consist of payments made to the wrong party, for the wrong reason, in the wrong amount or with wrong or missing documentation. The White House has identified federal improper payments totaling $180 million made to dead people in fiscal 2009.

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Those types of erroneous payments could be reduced through appropriate reporting so that individual eligibility can be verified more easily before a payment is made, officials said at the hearing.

“If all states submitted all death records to the Electronic Death Registration, death reporting would be faster and virtually error-free,” Croft said.

Electronic reporting through the central database generally takes five days, while other processes take much longer, Croft said. SSA publishes about 48,000 new death records a week and distributes the information to state and federal agencies. The agency claims an accuracy rate of more than 99 percent for its 92 million death records on file.

Croft pointed to state financial budget shortfalls as the likely cause for the gaps in electronic reporting, and noted that increases in federal grants to states may be needed to make the death record database comprehensive for all 50 states.

Also at the hearing, Daniel Werfel, acting controller for the Office of Management and Budget, and Richard Gregg, fiscal assistant secretary for the Treasury Department, detailed recent administration efforts to reduce improper payments by $160 billion over 10 years.

They described the new Web portal that is being designed as a one-stop-shop for federal agency officials to verify eligibility of a people getting money. The portal launched in November 2010 in beta form, and the administration is seeking $10 million for more capabilities in the fiscal 2012 budget. is being designed for verification of contractors, grant recipients and individual beneficiaries. It is intended to be a repository of data collected from agencies, presumably including data such as the SSA's electronic death registry, and a provider of data to the agencies. Work is expected to be completed by the end of fiscal 2012

Treasury’s Bureau of Public Debt is working to enhance the portal by connecting to multiple databases and creating a search mechanism to search all the databases at once, Gregg said. Treasury is adding access to forensic and anti-fraud technology and risk modeling capabilities, and creating an operations center, call center and a data analytics center attached to the portal, he said. Data privacy and security protocols are a major part of the project, he added.

Although much of the data analytics can be performed under current privacy legislation, some additional legislation may be needed to apply additional analytics to identifying possible improper payments, Gregg said.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.


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