Payments to the dead are mistakes — as well as thefts

But the federal government is working to reduce the amount of money it wrongly pays to retirees who have died.

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The federal government has been paying hundreds of millions of dollars to the dead for years. Surprised? Probably not.

Americans are simply numb to bureaucratic bungling in a government that’s become so enormous that the right hand doesn’t even know the left hand exists.

Yet, the extent of payments by the U.S. government to the dead is worse than most imagined.

In the past few years, according to Washington Post reporter David Fahrenthold, Social Security paid $133 million to beneficiaries who were deceased. The federal employee retirement system paid more than $400 million to retirees who had died.

It would seem, given the enormous amount of money at stake, more would have been done in the past to curb these mistakes, particularly because in many of the instances, the checks are being cashed and spent — and it’s clear the dead aren’t doing it.

Fahrenthold wrote a detailed, agency-by-agency look at the various problems that result in checks being issued to the departed. He concedes the task of tracking the deaths of 2.5 million people every year in a country of more than 300 million is overwhelming. The vast majority of those deaths are tracked and the payments stopped.

While honest mistakes are made and glitches occur, many of these payments to the dead are thefts. The mistakes and glitches can be corrected and eventually eliminated (or, at least, reduced). Stopping fraud is a tougher task.

In 1995, Fahrenthold reported, the government sent a letter to a federal retiree named Silas McHenry Sr. It came back signed — by Silas McHenry Jr. assuring the government his father was alive but afflicted by Alzheimer’s disease. But McHenry Jr. was collecting his dad’s check 12 years before the first letter and continued until 2006 when he was caught by a fraud inspector and later sentenced to more than three years in prison.

In recent years — about the time the national economy came off the rails — the government has taken a more aggressive stand to reduce payments to the dead. It’s working. The Office of Personnel Management’s Inspector General reported that $120 million was paid to dead retirees in 2011 but that number dropped to $86 million last year. And about 75 percent of the money that was paid out is eventually recovered.

That’s a good start. The amount of money being stolen, at least in relation to the federal budget, isn’t much. Nevertheless, the millions of dollars lost — particularly when much of it’s stolen — should not be tolerated.

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