WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Agriculture has made progress in recent years, but it still pays dead people.
The Government Accountability Office reported Monday that two USDA agencies improperly sent millions of dollars in subsidies to deceased individuals because it didn't have the right tools to filter them out.
According to the GAO, which is Congress' auditing arm, the agencies that oversee conservation and crop insurance programs paid nearly $33 million combined in subsidies to deceased farmers between 2008 and 2012.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service made $10.6 million in payments on behalf of 1,103 deceased individuals one year or more after their death, the GAO said in its report.
The Risk Management Agency paid an estimated $22 million in subsidies on behalf of an estimated 3,434 program policyholders two or more years after death, the reports states.
Some of the payments may have been proper, since the relatives of deceased participants in farm programs are allowed to collect the money for a certain amount of time as long as they are engaged in farming.
However, the GAO reported, the two agencies don't have processes for identifying payments to deceased farmers and don't review the payments. The GAO examined some specific payments and found they went to ineligible people.
The GAO was more positive about the Farm Service Agency's effort to cut down on its own payments to dead people.
In a 2007 report, the GAO found that the agency had paid more than $1 billion from 1999 through 2005 to nearly 173,000 dead farmers.
Since then, however, the agency has begun matching the names of people receiving subsidies to the Social Security Administration's list of the deceased and then reviewing payments to determine whether they're proper.
“Overall, these procedures have enabled (the Farm Service Agency) to identify thousands of deceased individuals who were paid $3.3 million in improper payments after their dates of death, of which FSA has recovered approximately $1 million,” the report states.
Part of the problem with the other two agencies, according to the GAO, is that they have not been using the most comprehensive version of the Social Security Administration's death master list.
Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Muskogee, and Tom Carper, D-Del., introduced legislation last week aimed at making the list more easily accessible to all federal agencies.
“It is inexcusable for bureaucratic red tape to hinder the detection of individuals who are on the government's list of deceased beneficiaries,” Coburn said.
“This bill will improve the Social Security Administration's management of the file while increasing real-time data sharing with other agencies to ensure the most up-to-date information is available on beneficiaries before payments are disbursed.”
There are also problems at the state and county level in making sure that payments made after a farmer's death are going to individuals qualified to receive them.
In response to the report, the USDA challenged the assertion that the agencies did not have any procedures in place to detect improper payments, but the department generally agreed with the GAO's recommendations and said the Risk Management Agency had recently implemented a new computer matching program.
In addition, the USDA said the Risk Management Agency and conservation service had received approval to use the Social Security Administration's complete death master file.