Remember the thriller movie that came out a few years ago with the tagline "I see dead people"?
The Social Security Administration doesn't see dead people. But it does send them checks. About $100 million worth.
The latest report from Social Security's inspector general estimates that the agency sent $99 million in checks to 890 "deceased beneficiaries" -- payments it could have have prevented had it used data from Medicare claims to figure out who's dead.
The IG also estimates that Social Security will pay out about $9 million to dead people in the next year.
Dead. You know -- dead. Bereft of life. Kicked the bucket. Not just resting. Not just pining for the fjords. Joined the choir invisible. And still getting Social Security checks.
"Because such data include additional information on beneficiaries who are alive and living in nursing homes, are enrolled in HMOs, or have private health insurance, we believe SSA can screen out a large percentage of beneficiaries and better identify deceased beneficiaries using less time and fewer resources," the Social Security IG's office wrote.
Keep in mind, the IG's office didn't track down 890 dead people and find their sneaky nephews gambling away their Social Security checks on the craps tables in Vegas. The numbers in the study are just estimates from a sample the IG's office took -- of 125 sample Social Security recipients, they found that 23 of them were dead, "and SSA was generally unaware of these deaths."
Of the 23 dead people, one of them died as far back as 1982. That person had been paid more than $300,000 since they died, the IG said. A criminal investigation is underway in that case, as well as in the case of the person who died 19 years ago and who was paid nearly $225,000 since their deaths, the IG wrote.
On average, the dead check-payees the IG's office found shuffled off their mortal coils 12 years earlier.
Social Security had tried to use Medicare data for this purpose several years ago, but because of problems in the data, it wasn't a very effective way to find dead people still on the rolls, and Social Security eventually gave up on the idea. But Medicare keeps a lot more complete data now, which yields better results, the IG said.
Of course, Medicare has its own problems. The IG for Medicare's parent agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, earlier this week said the agency hadn't accurately reported "high-dollar" improper payments made by Medicare Parts A and B in its mandatory reports for Fiscal Year 2010. "In addition, for Medicare Parts C and D, Head Start, and the five State-administered programs, we were unable to determine whether the Department reported all such payments," the HHS IG wrote.
The HHS report didn't assign a dollar figure to the improper payments.