The Office of Inspector General (OIG) says the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is putting millions of taxpayer dollars at an elevated risk of waste and abuse by reimbursing funeral expenses identified as ineligible by its own policies.
On April 13, OIG issued a management alert to advise FEMA that its COVID-19 Funeral Assistance Program operating procedures are inconsistent with FEMA’s previous interpretation of long-standing regulations for ineligible funeral expenses established in FEMA’s Individual Assistance Program and Policy Guide1 (IAPPG).
OIG notes that this interpretation of regulations for ineligible funeral expenses remains unchanged in FEMA Policy 104-21-00012 (COVID-19-specific policy).
During the watchdog’s ongoing audit of the COVID-19 Funeral Assistance Program, it determined, and verified through analyzing a sample of completed program applications, that FEMA regularly reimburses applicants for expenses expressly excluded from funeral assistance in the IAPPG. Such expenses include obituaries; flowers; printed materials, such as programs and register books; catering; transporting applicant or others to site(s) of funeral services; and gratuities. Specifically, during OIG’s review, it identified 98 of 166 approved applications (59 percent) that contained expenses identified as ineligible in the IAPPG.
Due to the unprecedented size of this program and the uncertainty surrounding the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic, OIG says FEMA must immediately issue modified COVID-19 Funeral Assistance operating procedures that align with the IAPPG provisions on ineligible funeral assistance expenses and ensure all future cost reimbursements by FEMA in connection with the COVID-19 Funeral Assistance Program are necessary expenses associated with funeral services and/or burials.
FEMA did not agree and asserted that it has broad authority to determine eligible costs for funeral assistance and to implement disaster-specific changes to policy. FEMA leadership believes the COVID-19-specific policy provides the flexibility and expediency lawmakers intended regarding the extent to which FEMA should provide necessary expenses associated with COVID-19-related funerals. FEMA also pointed to the unprecedented scale of the COVID-19 Funeral Assistance Program, in comparison to its experience with such applications from a 2017 hurricane. Additionally, FEMA leadership believes that implementing OIG’s recommendation would create inequalities to the detriment of future applicants, who would qualify for less assistance for fewer eligible expenses.