FEMA launched a massive call center to manage applications, hiring 4,000 contractors in Denver. Survivors must call to initiate the process, as applications are not accepted online. FEMA received a million calls on the first day, leaving many people waiting on hold.
Once Leaver talked to a representative, she started assembling the death certificates and receipts from the funeral home and cemetery. She uploaded them online — and heard nothing for months.
Eventually, she called and learned that one problem was that the receipts she submitted had different signatures — one was her husband’s, another her sister’s. And although it was a joint funeral, to get the full amount per parent, the government required separate receipts for each parent’s funeral. Leaver said she was frustrated, but determined to get it done “come hell or high water.” Plus, she said, it was summer break, and she had time.
But many other eligible families haven’t applied or say they don’t have time.
Clerical challenges have discouraged participation, especially for those whose loved ones died early in the pandemic, said Jaclyn Rothenberg, FEMA’s chief spokesperson.
“Some people with death certificates didn’t necessarily have COVID listed as the cause of death,” she said. “We do have a responsibility to our taxpayer stewards to make sure that that is, in fact, the cause.”
Rothenberg said FEMA is trying to resolve everyone’s problems. Even though the agency has spent the $2 billion initially budgeted, she said there’s a new pot of stimulus funding from the American Rescue Plan Act.
Comparing FEMA’s data to official COVID fatalities through March 15 showed that Washington, D.C., led the nation with applications for 77% of deaths. States clustered in the South had the highest participation rate in the program, with North Carolina approaching applications for two-thirds of deaths. Other states remain well below a 50% participation rate. In Oregon and Washington, fewer than 1 in 3 COVID deaths resulted in an application.
Eligibility is generally not the hurdle. There are no income limits, and life insurance does not preclude participation. And there is still no deadline. One of the few disqualifiers is if a funeral was prepaid.
“We need people to continue helping us get the word out,” Rothenberg said. “We know we have more work to do.”