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COVID Funeral Assistance Program Causes Headaches For Applicants

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AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File
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FILE - In this July 21, 2020, file photo, pall bearers carry a casket with the body of Lydia Nunez, who died from COVID-19, after a funeral service at the Metropolitan Baptist Church in Los Angeles.

The federal government is offering reimbursement to cover funeral expenses for those who have died from COVID-19.

The program through the Federal Emergency Management Agency provides up to $9,000 for funeral and burial expenses, including travel, for people who died from COVID-19 after Jan. 20, 2020. Those who lost multiple loved ones to COVID can apply for up to $35,500 total.

State Rep. Dan Brady, R-Bloomington, is a funeral director by trade. Brady said he worries the application process could be tricky, depending on the circumstances of the death.

FEMA will consider—but not necessarily accept—cases where COVID-19 contributed to a death, but was not considered the immediate cause. Brady said that applies to a lot of people who died during the pandemic--especially older adults.

“A number of deaths related to those that are more elderly, they have had a contributory cause of death listed as COVID, but the more immediate cause of death has been underlying symptoms and conditions they've had for years—heart disease, renal failure, dementia, pneumonia,” Brady said.

Federal officials told Brady they will allow people to apply for an amended death certificate, if they believe their loved one’s death was caused by COVID. But Brady said, at the state level, the person requesting the new documentation would have to be an immediate next of kin.

The FEMA program allows whoever paid for the funeral to apply for reimbursement -- not necessarily the next the kin. Brady said that could cause headaches.

“If we’ve got a family split and somebody’s trying to get their money for it, they may not be the one who has the authority under Illinois law to get a death certificate amended,” Brady said.

Even if a family does request an amended death certificate, he said it could take a long time for that request to be processed. That’s handled by the Illinois Department of Public Health’s Division of Vital Records.

In addition to the death certificate, applicants also must submit expense documents and proof of funds from other sources -- funeral insurance, life insurance, state assistance, etc.

Brady said the caveat is that the funeral must be paid in full to receive reimbursement. He said that’s not the case for all families who have experienced a loss.

“You will see that usually a cremation service is paid sooner in full, because it’s usually less money. A traditional burial may be something to where it takes some type of payment plan or something along those lines and it takes longer to pay the account off.”

Brady said other families have pushed observances further into the future, opting for cremation now and a celebration of life once the pandemic eases up. FEMA funds will not be allocated for future services, he said.

Brady describes the program as “well intended with ill-intended consequences.” He said he expects some of the kinks will be worked out along the way.

For example, a FEMA call center dedicated to the program was overwhelmed by more than a million calls when it went live earlier this month. Federal officials say they’ve since hired more people to handle the call load. More than 120,000 applications were received within the first eight days of the program.

There is no deadline or funding cap for the funeral assistance program.

There also is no online application available. Applicants must call (844) 684-6333. For more information on eligibility, visit FEMA’s website.

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Dana Vollmer is a reporter with WGLT. Dana previously covered the state Capitol for NPR Illinois and Peoria for WCBU.