The economic rescue package just passed by Congress includes financial help to cover funeral expenses for Americans who died of COVID-19 this year.
The legislation designates $2 billion to the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Disaster Relief Fund to offer financial assistance to "an individual or household to meet disaster-related funeral expenses" incurred through December 31, 2020. The government should cover 100% of the funeral costs, according to the measure.
Uncle Sam often provides support for losses incurred during a major disaster or emergency. The president frees up aid by declaring an emergency. Under the Stafford Act, FEMA can offer help with burial costs if the deaths were caused by a presidentially declared emergency or disaster.
As was the case after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Sandy seven years later, the disaster relief fund, financed by Congress, had the federal government reimburse families for funeral costs. The Government Accountability Office in September 2019 found that FEMA paid roughly $2.6 million in response to 976 applications for funeral expenses from a trio of hurricanes in 2017. Broken down that is about $2,700 in government aid for each request approved.
As with many things to do with government and COVID-19, however, the designated lifeline to grief-stricken families may not be straightforward.
FEMA's hands have been tied from offering the same help during the coronavirus, even though the disaster relief fund drew an extra $45 billion from the first round of stimulus. In an April 28 memorandum, President Donald Trump authorized crisis counseling assistance through FEMA, but stipulated that the order "not be construed to encompass any authority to approve other forms of assistance."
The administration has stuck to its stance, despite pleas from New York's congressional delegation, which in May urged Mr. Trump and FEMA Administrator Peter Gaynor to help grieving families "give their loved ones who succumbed to the coronavirus proper burials."
At the time in May, the nation had lost more than 81,000 lives due to COVID-19, almost 27% of them New Yorkers, the lawmakers stated. The grim U.S. toll on Tuesday stood at nearly 322,000, according to John Hopkins University, with the year's coronavirus and related death counts akin to having 15 Airbus 320 jetliners, each carrying 150 passengers, crash every day, according to a recent paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
On Tuesday, a spokesperson for FEMA said the agency "has never provided funeral assistance on anything approaching this scale. As such, we are reviewing the legislation and evaluating potential options for implementation."
All 50 states have received major disaster declarations for the pandemic that includes individual assistance, and funeral assistance may be available for costs not covered by insurance, nonprofit or state agencies, the spokesperson emailed.
"FEMA has already obligated more than $56.2 billion in the fight against COVID-19," she noted, declining to specify whether that figure included help with burial costs.
The White House Office of Management and Budget did not immediately return requests for comment.
First published on December 22, 2020 / 4:47 PM
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