On a humid August afternoon in 2020, two caskets – a silver one, a white one – were sitting in a hole in the ground in a small, graveside service in Travelers Rest Town, South Carolina.
The family has just lost a mother and father, both in Covid-19.
“They died five days apart,” said Alison Lever, their daughter, who now lives in Maryland with her husband and children.
When Lever’s parents died that summer, it was a catastrophic tragedy. And there was no life insurance or burial policy to help with the costs.
“We just thought we’d put it on our credit card and pay it off, and that’s how we’re going to deal with it,” Lever, a public school teacher, said with a smile of resignation.
But then, in April 2021, the Federal Emergency Management Agency offered to reimburse the cost of the funeral for Kovid victims – up to $ 9,000, which is about the average cost of a funeral. And the help was previous.
The lever is applied immediately.
“If this horrible thing were to happen, at least we wouldn’t be cashing in on it,” he said.
In one year of the program, the federal government paid more than $ 2 billion to cover the funeral expenses of those who died in Covid. More than 300,000 families received compensation, averaging $ 6,500 But less than half of eligible families have started applying, and FEMA says there is no limit to the funds available at this time.
Many surviving family members have been challenged or unaware that money is still available.
FEMA has hired 4,000 contractors in Denver and launched a huge call center to handle applications. Survivors must call to begin the process, as online applications are not accepted. FEMA received one million calls on its first day, leaving many waiting.
Once Lever spoke to a representative, he began collecting death certificates and receipts from the funeral home and cemetery. He uploaded them online – and hadn’t heard from them in months.
Eventually, she found out by phone that the problem was that the receipts she had submitted had different signatures – one for her husband, the other for her sister. And although it was a joint funeral, in order to get the full amount to each parent, a separate government receipt was required for each parent’s funeral. Lever said he was disappointed, but determined to get it done “hell or high water.” Also, he said, it was summer vacation and it was his time.
But many other eligible families have not applied or say they do not have time.
Jacqueline Rothenberg, a spokeswoman for FEMA, said the Clerical Challenge discouraged participation, especially for those whose loved ones died early in the epidemic.
“Some people, including death certificates, were not necessarily listed as the cause of death,” he said. “Our taxpayer stewards have a responsibility to make sure it’s the cause.”
Rothenberg said FEMA is trying to solve everyone’s problems. Although the agency initially spent $ 2 billion budgeted, he said there is a new source of stimulus funds from the American Rescue Plan Act.
As of March 15, FEMAR data comparing official Kovid deaths shows that Washington, D.C., led the country with 77% of deaths. The southernmost clustered states had the highest participation rates, with North Carolina approaching applications for two-thirds of deaths. Other states have a 50% participation rate. In Oregon and Washington, less than 1 in 3 Covid deaths have resulted in an appeal.
Qualifications are not usually a barrier. There is no income limit, and life insurance does not preclude participation. And there is still no deadline. One of the disqualifications is if a funeral is prepaid.
“We need people to help us get the word out,” Rothenberg said. “We know we have more work to do.”
FEMA is launching a publicity campaign to promote the program The agency is focusing on the more populous states of California, New York, Pennsylvania and Texas, and is targeting weaker populations.
The government is also leaning towards the community groups associated with them who need to know the most about money.
Covid Survivors for Change, founded by Chris Kochhar, is helping people navigate the process, including a Facebook webinar.
“We’ve been able to connect people with some of the survivors who have already gone through that process just to help them get through it,” Kochhar said.
Many just need someone to complete the application for them.
Stephanie Smith of Carlyle, Kentucky has lost her father in Covid. Her mother, then 83, had no chance to apply. At a minimum, scanning or faxing is required to apply.
“She’s a very smart, spongy woman, but she didn’t use a computer,” Smith said.
Smith was able to jump with the hoop without much difficulty. And $ 9,000, she said, is enough to make life easier because her mother has adapted to being a cowardly widow.
“He probably wouldn’t have tried it because the whole process would have been irresistible for him,” he said.
The story is part of a partnership that includes Nashville Public Radio, NPR and KHN.
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