WASHINGTON -- 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 Because of a jury-rigged and outdated system meant to track deaths, the government has trouble determining exactly which Americans are deceased.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 first group are people who have died but are counted as alive in federal records. Their benefits keep coming. Millions of dollars pile up in unwatched accounts. Millions more are spent by feckless relatives. In one recent record-breaking case, a son stole his dead father's federal benefits for 26 years.
The second group includes living Americans -- at least 750 new people every month -- whom the system falsely lists as dead. And once you're on that list, it is not easy to get off. This summer in Utah, one man visited a Social Security office to protest his "death" in person. But the clerks wanted more evidence. They gave him a piece of paper, the man's son recalled.
They asked him to write on it, "I'm alive."
In Washington, these failures have become a long-running case study in how government systems break -- and stay broken.
In this case, the causes include familiar bad habits, such as the inattention of Congress, and inertia in the bureaucracy. A job that the government needs done -- compiling a full and accurate list of the nation's dead -- never really became anybody's job.
"We come into the world with nothing. And we leave this world with nothing," said Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del. Or at least, he said, that's how it's supposed to work. Now, Carper said, "as long as we have dead people getting benefits, there's still a Hail Mary (chance) at trying to take it with you. And if you can't take it with you, someone else is getting that money."
Glitches and fraud
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 latest mistakes were revealed last week. In 2011 alone, auditors found, Medicare paid $23 million for services "provided" to dead people. From 2009 to 2011, it spent $8.2 million on medical equipment "prescribed" by doctors who had been dead for at least a year. The causes seemed to include poor record-keeping, sometimes exploited by fraudsters.
For government watchdogs, these are some of the most fixable -- and therefore the most maddening -- mistakes that the government makes. A big part of the frustration stems from the fact that there is no interest group fighting to keep the flawed status quo: The dead do not lobby.
But, somehow, they still get paid.
"Not to speak ill of the dead, but they're the least deserving of federal payments," said Steve Ellis of the group Taxpayers for Common Sense. This is real money: Payments to the dead in recent years have totaled more than the annual budget of the Library of Congress. But the situation doesn't get fixed, Ellis said, because the cost is spread among all taxpayers -- too wide and too thin to make anybody very mad.
"In the end, it's not enough money. And it's not enough of an issue to get people rallied around," he said.
The Death Master File
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.
"We get criticized for not having all these records be accurate," said Marianna LaCanfora, the Social Security official whose division oversees this function. "And the fact is, they were never intended to be 100 percent accurate."
This is the flaw at the center of the system. A task that requires near-perfection -- maintaining the death records used by agencies across Washington -- has fallen, by default, to an agency that does not believe perfection is its job.
Instead, Social Security officials say, they maintain the list for their own narrower purpose -- to stop dead people from receiving Social Security benefits. If a death is reported and the person wasn't getting Social Security payments (because, for example, he or she was too young), the agency doesn't verify that the report is correct.
But it does put the report into the master file, which is shared with other agencies. The Social Security administration has not been able to say what percentage of the death reports come in this way, unverified.
But they are one reason that living people can end up counted as dead. Their information is entered in error and never checked.
"You're not going to believe this, but you're dead," Patricia Jennings, 61, of Lyndon, Kan., said her accountant told her in 2010. The federal government was refusing to accept her tax return on the grounds that she had been dead since 1990.
Jennings has a suspicion about how she "died." Earlier in 2010, she lost her temper in a phone call with a Social Security employee after an error in her benefits claim was discovered; she said, "You are such a sorry individual!" That employee, Jennings thinks, took revenge by making her dead. (A Social Security spokesman said he doubted that an employee would do that but could not provide specific information about this case.)
Every month, according to the Social Security Administration, at least 750 living Americans are wrongly put into the Death Master File. The process of getting off the list is known as "resurrection" or "un-deading," in the slang of agency workers.
"Nobody told me to do this. I just thought about it: I should just take my dad into the Social Security office here in Provo. Just show him in the flesh, just to show .<!p>.<!p>. he's alive," said David Cleveland of Santaquin, Utah.
This past summer, Cleveland's mother died. For some reason, the federal government got the message that his father, Leonard Cleveland, 78, was dead instead.
"You need to write on this piece of paper that 'I'm alive,'<!p><#148> he recalled the clerks in Provo saying. His father did, and signed it. They went home.