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Americans seeking FEMA's funeral assistance eager for help but frustrated by the process

It was the last thing Chanice Newcomer thought would ever happen to her otherwise healthy father: A COVID-19 diagnosis and then sudden death.

Stuck with a funeral bill that cost nearly $20,000, her family was hopeful when the federal government announced it was providing funeral assistance funding to Americans who lost someone to the disease.

Newcomer was one of nearly a million callers who inundated a federal call center on opening day of a new funeral assistance program run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. It took her hours to get through, and once she finally did, she said she was told to call back the next business day.

“We were on hold for about four or five hours, and that includes multiple attempts,” said Newcomer. “It was a little crazy. But on the first day, I didn’t really mind this as much just because I knew it was a lot of people calling.”

FEMA’s nationwide program is the first of its kind. It offers $2 billion to Americans who have said goodbye to loved ones due to COVID-19. With the pandemic having claimed more than half a million American lives, the demand for this program is high. But for some Americans, getting an application approved remains difficult.

So far, FEMA has received more than 130,000 applications for its reimbursement program, which has no income requirement, and disbursed over $320,000 in funeral assistance funds since the program launched in early April. The agency says it has resolved issues around long wait times and has contracted support for 5,000 agents in addition to support from additional federal government staff. But it still averages roughly 25,000 calls a day.

PHOTO: A Reverend speaks at a double funeral service for a mother and daughter who both died of coronavirus, at the Denley Drive Missionary Baptist church in Dallas, July 30, 2020.

Genevieve Martinez, a school nurse in Dallas, Texas, died at age 62 of COVID-19 in July 2020. But as her daughter, Kaitlyn Urenda of El Paso, was going through the process of seeking benefits, she ran into hurdles because her mother’s death certificate listed respiratory failure as the cause of death, not COVID-19. It took her seven months to change that. If she didn’t, she would have likely encountered more problems applying for funeral assistance.

FEMA’s funeral assistance program states that death certificates must clearly indicate that death “was caused by” “may have been caused by” or “was likely a result of COVID-19 or COVID-19-like symptoms.” The agency also clarified that other language including “high likelihood of COVID-19” is sufficient attribution.

Early in the pandemic, reporting guidelines specifically regulating how hospitals attributed the cause of death for COVID-19 victims were different in each state. Those differences, however, now complicate the application process for some looking to utilize FEMA’s funeral reimbursement initiative.

“You’re not thinking about these things when your family member dies or your loved one dies,” said Urenda, an activist with Marked by COVID, a nonprofit organization helping Americans impacted by a COVID-19 loss. “Do the papers say the right thing? And then what do I do if it doesn’t?”

PHOTO: Genevieve Martinez, 62, was a school nurse in the Dallas area when she caught COVID-19 and died in July 2020.

Still, FEMA officials stand by the policy of requiring the coronavirus cause of death attribution on official documents submitted by applicants. The agency says it is looking at policy options that would permit some degree of flexibility for deaths that happened earlier in the pandemic.

“I am pleased to say, however, that most states have a very prescriptive means of amending the death certificate,” FEMA’s individual assistance director Matthew Redding said. “And that’s what we encourage folks to do — to first contact the certifying official on the death certificate itself.”

PHOTO: Paul Abramson, 92, was a retired travel agent and spent his final years at a retirement community in Teaneck, N.J.

Nancy Abramson’s father, Paul Abramson, died from COVID-19 at age 92 last year, just as the pandemic sent the nation into lockdown mode. Abramson said she wishes she could have given her father, who was a travel agent, the big sendoff she feels he deserved. His farewell was limited to just a few people at the grave site due to the coronavirus restrictions.

Funeral expenses for her father ended up costing around $12,000. While she is grateful that the federal government is now reimbursing family members of COVID-19 victims, Abramson said the government was not fully prepared to handle the coronavirus crisis.

“It’s an unfair exchange,” she said. “I don’t get my father back. It’s a minor piece of compensation.”

Abramson, who got through to a FEMA call center agent on the second day of operation, said her father would have encouraged her to seek out the opportunity FEMA is offering to eligible Americans.

“It doesn’t lessen the pain at all, but I know my father,” she said. “He was always looking for a deal. I don’t mean to make light of this but he’d say, if there’s a deal to be had you should get it.”

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