News 4 Investigates tax dollars covering COVID Funerals

Published: May. 11, 2022 at 10:32 PM CDT
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ST. LOUIS (KMOV) - News 4 Investigates is getting answers about a government program that has paid out hundreds of millions of your tax dollars for COVID-related funeral expenses.

“She had many friends, outgoing, on the go,” said Roger Webb.

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

“My other daughter had called on Mother’s Day evening and gave me the news that she had passed,” he said.

Kimberly was in a nursing home recovering from a stroke, but she’d been getting better, he says, until she contracted COVID. They held a service at Granberry Mortuary in Jennings. There was even extra cost, just because she’d had COVID.

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

The funeral was an expense, on top of his heartache, Roger hadn’t planned on having to bear. The funeral director suggested he apply for help from the federal government.

But Roger says he just kept getting tied up in red tape.

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

He hasn’t gotten reimbursed, so he turned to News 4 for help and we turned to officials from FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, for answers. They’ve long had a funeral assistance program for other disasters like tornados and floods.

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

Back in 2020, they started reimbursing families up to $9,000 for COVID-19 related funeral expenses.

So far, close to 7,800 applications have been approved in Missouri, with upwards of to $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 a funeral, we want to be helpful to those individuals,” Cappannari said.

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

“Unfortunately, we see this with other disasters, you see the lowest of the low of the people who try to take advantage of a program like this,” he said.

Though improper payments, he says, account for less than 1 percent of the total payouts, he says that’s exactly why they require COVID or coronavirus be listed on the person’s death certificate.

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

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

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

He says he’s had people request COVID be taken off some 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 yeah, we are supposed to tell the truth,” Dr. Graham said.

News 4 called the doctor in Kimberly’s case. She declined to go on camera. But she told News 4 she actually agreed with Roger and had submitted the paperwork to get Kimberly’s death certificate changed.

“You didn’t know it had been changed?” asked Investigative Reporter Lauren Trager. “I did not,” Roger said.

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

“I am happy about that and I thank you for helping me get through this,” he said.

Though he said it doesn’t bring her back.

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

He’s glad a little financial assistance might now be on the way.

The funeral assistance program is still available to family’s whose loved ones passed away from COVID, even at the start of the pandemic. A spokesperson says they have controls in place to detect scammers, saying they will prosecute anyone who applies fraudulently.

You can find more information here.