Death Master File reform breathes life into U.S. budget deal

WASHINGTON Wed Dec 11, 2013 6:57pm EST

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Thank the sinister-sounding Death Master File for helping breathe life into the bipartisan U.S. budget deal reached on Tuesday.

Among provisions aimed at reversing the across-the-board "sequestration" government spending cuts and reducing federal deficits, lawmakers restricted access to an index the Social Security Administration keeps of people who have died.

Better controls over such information will save an estimated $786 million in government payments to people who steal dead people's Social Security numbers and other information to fraudulently claim tax refunds and credits and Medicare payments, a Senate aide said.

"There are a number of anti-waste and fraud provisions in the budget agreement," another Senate aide said. "Obviously this is a notable one because paying people who are dead is a bad thing."

Keeping a lid on the death information except for those who can prove they can keep it safe from abuse would be a modest boost to $85 billion bipartisan deal that lawmakers struck in a surprising show of bipartisanship this week. The accord, which came days ahead of a self-imposed deadline, was an unexpected break from a cycle of fiscal brinkmanship that caused a government shutdown in October and brought the country close to default and blemished its pristine credit rating in 2011.

If approved by Congress, the deal would set spending levels for two years and blunt across-the-board spending cuts by $63 billion over scheduled levels.

The Social Security Administration's Death Master File - which other federal agencies use to make decisions about a range of benefits - has long been considered low-hanging fruit for those aiming to save the government money by stamping out waste, fraud and abuse.

"Preventing wasteful spending, including to deceased individuals, must be a higher priority," Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Thomas Carper said at a hearing earlier this year.

The agency maintains records for about 98 million dead people, and received about 7 million new death reports in 2012, the U.S. Government Accountability Office said in a report.

The public can purchase a version of the file through the Department of Commerce. Banks, search engines, genealogy services, and credit agencies typically avail themselves of it, although some government agencies skirt the bureaucracy and use it as well.

But tax cheats and identity thieves can also access the file. The White House budget office estimates improper federal agency payments of almost $108 billion in 2012, the GAO said.

The budget deal would restrict access to the list for a three-year period beginning with an individual's death except for people certified to get the information sooner. Life insurance companies, banks and pension administrators would typically want the information right away but would have to prove they can shield the data.

The administration proposed in its budget submission expanding access to the death file to federal agencies to prevent erroneous payments and restricting access to individuals to curtail fraud.

If enacted, those provisions together could save about $1 billion over 10 years, the White House estimated.

(Reporting by Mark Felsenthal; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

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