Next front in fight against improper payments? Stopping payments to dead people

Friday - 8/30/2013, 3:10pm EDT

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, on "In Depth" with Francis Rose

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Senators on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee have opened a new legislative salvo in the fight against improper payments: helping agencies stop payments to dead people.

Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), the chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the committee, introduced the The Improper Payments Agency Cooperation Enhancements (IPACE) Act last month, aiming to give agencies new tools to combat erroneous payouts to deceased recipients.

The new legislation would allow all federal agencies to access basic death data maintained by the Social Security Administration and require they use it to curb improper payments. Currently, most agencies are only granted access to an abridged version of what's known as the Death Master File.

"We want to make sure that federal agencies have access to it — not to some other slimmed-down, incomplete, less timely version of the Death Master File but actually to the real deal," Caper said in an interview on In Depth with Francis Rose.

In a 2010 report, Coburn's office found agencies paid more than $1 billion to dead people between 2000 and 2010. The inspector general of the Office Personnel Management reported in 2011 that agency, alone, had paid more than $600 million to the deceased since 2006.

Overall, the government makes about $100 billion in improper payments each year.

The latest bill would also improve the quality of the data maintained in the Death Master File by allowing agencies — the Defense Department or the Veterans Affairs Department, for example — to share death notices directly with SSA. Such two-way communication doesn't currently happen, Carper said.

Carper predicts widespread bipartisan support

Carper said he believes the bill will garner widespread bipartisan support. The oversight committee has already reported it out on a unanimous vote, Carper said.

Congress returns from its August recess next week but faces a crammed calendar of must-do items, such as passing a fiscal 2014 budget or at least a stopgap funding measure.

Still, Carper predicted a strong appetite both in Congress and the agencies, themselves, for the legislation.

"Agencies right now are struggling with sequestration ... trying to avoid furloughing people and trying to avoid having to cut back on programs that are critical," he said. "So, there's every incentive to identify money that's being wasted — and it's harder to find an example of money that's being wasted than sending it to people that are dead."

The legislation is the latest in a series of bills approved by Congress aiming to tackle improper payments.

Just last year, Congress enacted the Improper Payments Elimination and Recovery Improvement Act, which reinforced an Obama administration mandate that agencies consult a "Do Not Pay" list before sending checks out the door.

Carper confident on postal reform

Also at the top of Carper's legislative priorities list is enacting comprehensive postal reform legislation.

As massive losses have piled up at the U.S. Postal Service, Congress has remained stalemated over potential legislative fixes.

But Carper said lawmakers came close to a deal last year — and that has helped lay the groundwork this time around.

"We got the ball in the red zone," Carper said. "In football, that means we got the ball inside the 20-yard line. ... We didn't get the ball in the end zone. If we'd done that, we would've got a compromise and it would have been enacted. But we had pretty good experience in negotiating with them."

Last month, Carper and Coburn introduced a draft postal reform bill proposal earlier this month. The House Oversight and Committee Reform Committee is further along in the process, having approved last month a postal overhaul, which sends the measure to the full House for a vote.

Caper said his committee will hold two hearings in September to gather input on the proposals.

"If all goes well, my hope is that we'd be able to mark it up and report a bipartisan bill out of committee sometime in the first half of October," he said.

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