Video: Does this woman look dead to you?

By Reporters
msnbc.com and NBC News
updated 2/29/2008 6:21:40 PM ET 2008-02-29T23:21:40

For a dead woman, Laura Todd is awfully articulate.

“I don’t think people realize how difficult it is to be dead when you’re not,” said Todd, who is very much alive and kicking in Nashville, Tenn., even though the federal government has said otherwise for many years.

Todd’s struggle started eight years ago with a typo in government records. The government has reassured her numerous times that it has cleared up the confusion, but the problems keep coming.   

Most recently, the IRS — again — rejected her electronic tax return.

“I will not be eligible for my refund. I’m not eligible for my rebate,” she said. “I mean, I can’t do anything with it.”

Laura Todd is not alone. She is one of tens of thousands of living, breathing Americans whom the federal government has wrongly declared dead — by one measure, more than 35 a day.

Garbage in, garbage out
The problem begins at the Social Security Administration, keeper of most of the records tabulating deaths in the United States. Like other government agencies, the IRS, with whom Todd has most recently tangled, relies upon Social Security’s database, said Dan Boone, a spokesman for the IRS.

When Social Security determines that an eligible current or future beneficiary has died, it closes the person’s entry in its Case Processing and Management System, or CPMS.

The system is only as good as the data it receives. Sometimes, that isn’t very good.

Todd, for example, was killed when someone in Florida died and her Social Security number was accidentally typed in. Since then, her tax returns have repeatedly been rejected, and her bank closed her credit card account.

“One time when I [was] ruled dead, they canceled my health insurance because it got that far,” she said.

Toni Anderson of Muncie, Ind., expired when someone in the government pushed the wrong button, making the records declare that it was she, not her husband, John, who died Nov. 8.

Social Security even sent this letter: “Dear Mr. Anderson, our condolences on the loss of Mrs. Anderson.”

A hard problem to fix
Social Security concedes there’s a problem.

“The accuracy of death information is critical to SSA and its beneficiaries, as well as other federal, state and local government agencies,” it said in a 2006 report. “Input of an erroneous death entry can lead to benefit termination and result in financial hardship for a beneficiary.”

Anderson, 64, lost her monthly Social Security disability check. She hasn’t been able to make house payments and faces foreclosure. Her Medicaid benefits were also suspended, creating a crushing burden as she battles breast and possibly bone cancer.

“They’ve seen me four times, so they know that I’m alive,” Anderson said. “It’s just a matter of being able to get me alive in the system.”

That isn’t as easy as showing up at the Social Security office and saying, “Hi.”

Social Security says an erroneous death record can be removed only when it is presented with proof that the original record was entered in error. The original error must be documented, and the deletion must be approved by a supervisor after “pertinent facts supporting reinstatement” are available in the system.

In several audits, Social Security’s inspector general found that while documentation was required to delete a death record — “resurrecting” it, in Social Security’s language — people could be recorded as dead with much less paperwork.

For one thing, the agency said it “found that deaths were not always verified before SSI payments were stopped.”

For another, “we found it was not necessary to enter a date of death in CPMS to close a case based on death,” it said. “This created the potential for open cases to be improperly classified as processed due to death in CPMS.”

Moreover, until recently, too many people had open access to death records, which are supposed to be protected by “top secret” restrictions.

That door has since been closed, but the inspector general said the government can’t ensure the accuracy of records before mid-2006.

Your government: a serial killer?
In September 2006, the inspector general’s office tried to get a fix on how many people Social Security was improperly killing off by reviewing updates to the agency’s Death Master File.

In all, Social Security officials had to “resurrect” 23,366 people from January 2004 to September 2005. In other words, over a period of 21 months, Social Security was presented with irrefutable evidence that it had been “killing” more than 1,100 people a month, or more than 35 a day.

Two months later, in November 2006, the inspector general looked specifically at 251 cases of people to whom the agency continued to issue checks even though Medicare records said they were dead.

“Of the 251 individuals in our population, 86 are deceased and their SSI payments should be terminated,” the audit said. “The remaining 165 beneficiaries were actually alive and their Medicare benefits—and, in some cases, their SSI payments—were incorrectly terminated.”

That’s 65 percent, which the audit said “can cause undue hardship for the individual[s] and create public relations problems.” Furthermore, it said, erroneous death terminations “also create additional workloads for Agency staff, who must take action to correct the benefit records and resume payments. According to SSA, these cases are ‘... very time sensitive and require immediate action.’”

But one thing Social Security doesn’t do well is immediacy.

The agency processed more than a half-million requests for hearings in fiscal year 2006— of all types, not just those involving wrongful death terminations — the inspector general reported in yet another audit last May. The average processing time for a Social Security hearing in general: 483 days. If a ruling goes to an appeal, tack on another 203 days.

Apart from the horror stories that sometimes pop up in the media, the inspector general’s office offered some of its own. It said, for example, that in November 2005, an 81-year old woman contacted Social Security to report that her Medicare claims were being denied. After the woman made several more attempts to prove she was alive, the agency finally reinstated her benefits in July 2006, eight months after the error was discovered.

A genie that won’t go back in the bottle
Even if you do finally convince the government that you are not dead, your problems aren’t over.

Social Security, it turns out, publishes its death records. The Social Security Death Index is constantly updated and is available to anyone willing to pay for it. Its records show up in any number of places, from public document collections to Web sites for genealogy enthusiasts.

“I thought: ‘That’s just horrible. It’s never going to be over for me,’” said Todd, details of whose “death” can be found on numerous Web sites devoted to genealogy and public records.

Early on, Todd said, she tried to laugh off the mix-up. But not any longer.

“I’m tired. I’ve been fighting this for [many] years, and it never ends,” she said. “I’m very much alive and would like to live out my life in peace without having this problem.”

Alex Johnson is a reporter for msnbc.com. Nancy Amons is a correspondent for NBC affiliate WSVM in Nashville, Tenn. NBC affiliates KXAS of Dallas and WTHR of Indianapolis contributed to this report.

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