Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Federal Government's "Death Master File" (I Am Not Making That Up)

    While I certainly would not dispute the reasons for maintaining such a record, does it strike anyone else as just a little creepy that the government has a database called the Death Master File?  The Government Accountability Office (GAO) is currently conducting a review of the Social Security Administration's Death Master File to determine weaknesses and irregularities and recommend improvements to prevent improper payments.  The review is still in process, but the GAO issued a preliminary report this week.  Apparently this review is a long time in coming.  In a run-through of some 98,000,000 records, the GAO found a few peculiarities:
Specifically, we identified:
• 130 records where the date of death was recorded to occur before the date of birth;
• 1,295 records where the recorded age at death was between 111 and 129; and
• 1,791 records where the recorded death preceded 1936, the year SSNs were first issued, although the decedents had SSNs assigned to them. 
SSA officials said some of these anomalies were likely associated with records added prior to the mid-1970s that were manually processed.
    Obviously the government's interest in knowing when U.S. citizens die is not so it knows when to send flowers.  The report noted the real reason: money.
Federal benefit-paying agencies generally can access the information in this file and match it against data in their files to alert them to deceased benefit recipients, and therefore help reduce improper benefit payments. As the steward of taxpayer dollars, the federal government must guard against improper payments. Yet for fiscal year 2012, the Office of Management and Budget reported federal agency improper payment estimates totaling almost $108 billion.
    If it is true that the only two things certain in life are death and taxes, then I think there's plenty of evidence that the government has got the certainty of the latter handled.  With the help of the GAO, the government should be able to nail down the former, too.

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