News 4 investigating taxpayer money covering COVID funerals

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ST. LOUIS (KMOV) – News 4 Investigates is getting answers about a government program that paid out hundreds of millions of your tax dollars for COVID-related funeral expenses.

“She had a lot of friends, outgoing, on the go,” Roger Webb said.

It’s been almost exactly a year since Roger Webb lost his daughter Kimberly.

“My other daughter had called on Mother’s Day night and told me she had passed away,” he said.

Kimberly was in a nursing home recovering from a stroke, but she was doing better, he says, until she contracted COVID. They held a service at the Granberry morgue in Jennings. There was even an extra charge, just because she had COVID.

“You had to have a special coffin,” he said. “It was open, but they had a veil draped over it.”

The funeral was an expense, on top of his grief, Roger hadn’t planned on having to bear. The funeral director suggested that she seek help from the federal government.

But Roger says he kept getting tied down with red tape.

“The government wrote the guidelines, they put them there for that purpose, so if you need them and you qualify, you should get them. It’s as simple as that,” he said.

He was not reimbursed, so he turned to News 4 for help and we turned to officials at FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, for answers. They have long had a funeral assistance program for other disasters like tornadoes and floods.

“Besides going through the heartbreaking process of losing someone, having this financial burden on top of that, it’s not something anyone would want to deal with,” said Michael Cappannari, a FEMA spokesman. .

In 2020, they began reimbursing families up to $9,000 for funeral expenses related to COVID-19.

So far, nearly 7,800 applications have been approved in Missouri, with more than $49 million paid out.

And in Illinois, 14,000 applications have been approved, with more than $96.5 million paid out.

“The costs associated with funerals, we want to be helpful to these people,” Cappannari said.

But how does the government know if someone actually died from COVID? Cappannari says there are scammers trying to take advantage of the system.

“Unfortunately we see that with other disasters, you see the bottom of the bottom of people trying to profit from a program like this,” he said.

Although improper payments, he says, are less than 1% of total payments, he says that’s exactly why they require COVID or coronavirus to be listed on the person’s death certificate.

“As long as it’s something that is a contributing factor or is attributable to COVID, that’s enough for the person to be considered eligible,” he said.

But Kimberly’s death certificate didn’t mention COVID, despite it being on her hospital papers. He sent several letters to the doctor who signed it.

“We’re not putting it there just because they have it,” said Dr. Michael Graham, the St. Louis medical examiner. Graham is not affiliated with Kimberly’s case.

He says people have called for COVID to be removed from certain people’s death certificates. But he says most doctors wouldn’t list COVID unless it really contributed to the death.

“It’s a legal document, it’s not binding, it’s just my opinion, but yes, we are supposed to tell the truth,” Dr Graham said.

News 4 called the doctor in Kimberly’s case. She refused to go in front of the camera. But she told News 4 that she actually agreed with Roger and submitted the paperwork to have Kimberly’s death certificate changed.

“Didn’t you know it was changed?” asked investigative journalist Lauren Trager. “I didn’t,” Roger said.

Sure enough, after News 4 told him, he picked up an edited copy.

“I’m happy about it and thank you for helping me through this ordeal,” he said.

Although he said it wouldn’t bring her back.

“It doesn’t change that, not at all, not at all,” he said.

He is happy that a little financial help is now on the way.

The funeral assistance program is still available for families whose loved one has died of COVID, even at the start of the pandemic. A spokesperson said they have checks in place to detect scammers, saying they will prosecute anyone who applies fraudulently.

You can find more information here.

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