On a damp August afternoon in 2020, two caskets — one silver, one white — stood next to holes in the ground at a small funeral service in the town of Travelers Rest, South Carolina.
The family had just lost a mother and father, both to Covid-19.
“They died five days apart,” said Allison Leaver, her daughter, who now lives in Maryland with her husband and children.
When Leaver’s parents died that summer, it was a devastating tragedy. And there was no life insurance or burial policy to cover the costs.
“We just figured we’d just have to load that onto our credit cards and pay it off, and that’s how we’d do it,” said Leaver, a public school teacher, with a resigned laugh.
But then, in April 2021, the Federal Emergency Management Agency offered to reimburse funeral expenses for Covid victims – up to $9,000, which is about the average cost of a funeral. And the help was retroactive.
Leaver applied immediately.
“If this terrible thing had to happen, at least we wouldn’t run out of money for it,” she said.
A year into the program, the federal government has paid more than $2 billion to cover funeral expenses for people dying of Covid. More than 300,000 families have received reimbursements averaging $6,500. But fewer than half of eligible families have applied, and FEMA said there is no limit on available funds at this time.
Many surviving family members have encountered challenges or are unaware that the money is still available.
FEMA set up a massive call center to manage applications and hired 4,000 contractors in Denver. Survivors must call to start the process as applications are not accepted online. FEMA received a million calls the first day, leaving many people on hold.
After speaking with a representative, Leaver began compiling the death certificates and receipts from the funeral home and cemetery. She uploaded them online – and heard nothing for months.
Eventually she called and was told that a problem was that the receipts she had submitted had different signatures – one was her husband’s and another her sister’s. And although it was a joint funeral, the government required separate receipts for each parent’s funeral in order to receive the full amount per parent. Leaver said she was frustrated but determined to get it done, “come hell or high tide.” She also said it was summer vacation and she was free.
But many other eligible families have not applied or say they do not have the time.
Chancellor challenges have discouraged participation, particularly for those whose loved ones died early in the pandemic, said Jaclyn Rothenberg, FEMA’s chief spokesperson.
“Some people with death certificates didn’t necessarily list Covid as the cause of death,” she said. “We have a responsibility to our taxpayers to make sure that’s actually the cause.”
Rothenberg said FEMA is trying to solve everyone’s problems. Though the agency spent the $2 billion originally budgeted, it said there is a new pot of stimulus funding from the American Rescue Plan Act.
A comparison of FEMA data to official Covid deaths through March 15 showed Washington, DC, leading the nation with claims for 77% of deaths. States clustering in the South had the highest participation rates in the program, with North Carolina nearing applications for two-thirds of the deaths. Other states remain well below a participation rate of 50%. In Oregon and Washington, less than 1 in 3 Covid deaths resulted in a claim.
Suitability is usually not the hurdle. There are no income limits and life insurance does not preclude participation. And there is no deadline yet. One of the few disqualifiers is when a funeral has been paid for in advance.
“We need people to continue to help us spread the word,” Rothenberg said. “We know we still have work to do.”
FEMA is launching a publicity campaign to promote the program. The agency focuses on the populous states of California, New York, Pennsylvania and Texas and targets vulnerable populations.
The government also relies on community groups linked to those who need to know about the money most.
Founded by Chris Kocher, COVID Survivors for Change has helped people navigate the process, including through a Facebook webinar.
“We were able to connect people with some of the survivors who had already gone through this process just to help them go through it,” Kocher said.
Many just need someone to fill out the application for them.
Stephanie Smith of Carlisle, Kentucky lost her father to Covid. Her then 83-year-old mother had no chance to apply. At least scanning or faxing is required for the application.
“She’s a very smart, brave woman, but she’s never used a computer,” Smith said.
Smith was able to jump through the hoops without much trouble. And $9,000, she said, is enough to make life significantly easier as her mother adjusts to being a Covid widow.
“She probably wouldn’t have tried because the whole process would have been overwhelming for her,” she said.
This story is part of a partnership that includes Nashville Public Radio, NPR and KHN.
KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health issues. Along with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operational programs of the KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is a donated non-profit organization that provides information on health issues to the nation.