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FEMA funeral program inundated by 1 million calls at launch

The federal government program designed to help cover funeral costs for people who have died of COVID-19 was inundated with more than 1 million calls on its launch day.

The Federal Emergency Agency (FEMA) rolled out its hotline Monday, inviting Americans to apply for up to $9,000 per funeral and up to $35,500 per applicant to help with expenses related to coronavirus deaths occurring after January 20, 2020.

"The first day we opened up, there was definitely congestion on the line," Acting FEMA Director  Bob Fenton told lawmakers on the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee Wednesday. "We had a couple of technical issues with the service, but cleaned that up by the second day," Fenton said. "The second day was better than the first day. And I'm sure today will be much better than yesterday."

FEMA opted to register applicants via a phone hotline rather than an online application process, due to the sensitive nature of the program. "We want to make sure that we empathetically and compassionately help everyone that had a loss," Fenton said Wednesday.

Senator Jeanne Shaheen, Democrat of New Hampshire, also expressed concern that several of her constituents had been told by the agency they were ineligible for reimbursement because they pre-paid funeral costs for loved ones prior to the pandemic. "Can you explain why the policy would exclude those who have may have prepaid funeral expenses before [January 20, 2020] even though those who lost their lives — that didn't happen until after the 2020 deadline?" Fenton vowed to look into the discrepancy.

FEMA's reimbursement checks are intended to cover costs including the burial plot, casket, clergy services, cremation, transfer of remains and headstones.

To qualify, applicants must submit an official death certificate indicating that the death "may have been caused by" or "was likely the result of" COVID-19 or coronavirus-like symptoms. The death must have occurred within the U.S.or its territories, and funeral expenses must have been incurred after January 20, 2020. FEMA encourages applicants to produce funeral expense documents such as receipts, and a funeral home contract that includes the applicant's name, the deceased individual's name, the funeral expenses and dates the costs were incurred.

The federal government has historically provided support for losses suffered during a major natural disaster or emergency, including Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Maria in 2017. Under the Stafford Act, FEMA may offer help with burial costs if the deaths were caused by an emergency formally recognized by a presidential disaster declaration.

But FEMA's COVID-19 funeral reimbursement program marks the largest of its kind, with more than 564,000 Americans killed, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, both New York Democrats, pushed for the $2 billion for FEMA's Disaster Relief Fund to be included in the $900 billion relief deal Congress approved in December. The legislation required "an individual or household to meet disaster-related funeral expenses" incurred through December 31, 2020, with the U.S. government covering 100% of the funeral costs, according to the measure. Democrats' $1.9 trillion stimulus last month offered the agency an additional $50 billion toward coronavirus-related costs.

"It was our community leaders on the ground that sounded this early," Ocasio-Cortez said Monday, recounting how constituents told her office last year that they were unable to bury their relatives because they could not afford it.

Although the measure passed in December, the funeral reimbursement program stalled following concerns within the agency about fraud.

"This is going to be a nightmare on fraud," Former FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate told CBS News. "FEMA didn't willingly undertake this. Congress directed it."

Fenton told CBS News last month that the agency built procedures and processes to limit scams. "It's a balance, but we want to make sure that we're able to help those that lost individuals and need the funding back to reimburse for costs expended," Fenton said. "But yet, we will make sure that we are good stewards of the taxpayer dollars."

And since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) relies on states to verify whether individual deaths are COVID-related, the disaster agency is dependent on state health institutions and medical agencies that provide death certificates to residents.

 "All fifty states tend to record and certify a death differently." Fugate told CBS News, defining the central problem. "How do you make sure you don't exclude people that did die of COVID but might not have that clean documentation by a medical examiner that says they did die of COVID?"

But the president-elect of the National Funeral Directors Association, Randy Anderson, told CBS News that it is "going to be very difficult" for fraudsters to take advantage of the program "without producing some false document." Anderson, who was consulted by FEMA in the run-up to the new program, concedes that the agency got a late start. "But better late than never," Anderson said. "Families can finally get the assistance they need going forward."

Fenton announced the agency had already received more than 58,000 funeral assistance applications by Wednesday, including 1,700 with the required documentation.

"We ask that applicants be patient as we work to correct these issues and have all their important documents ready when they call to apply," FEMA said in a statement, Wednesday. "Please know there is no deadline to apply and applicants will have the ability to open a case.  We will not rush through calls because we intend to make sure that every applicant gets their questions answered and receives the help they need to apply."

While the disaster agency's hotline – 844-684-6333 – is open 9 AM ET – 9PM ET, FEMA recommends calling in the afternoon or evening to avoid traffic.

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