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The government wants to pay for every COVID funeral. Experts worry the process is flawed

In the past few weeks, a new and large form of COVID-19 relief has opened in the U.S., with the federal government offering to pay for all or most of every funeral of those lost to the disease. Lisa Desjardins reports on the unprecedented scale of help, how the rollout has fared so far, and the questions it raises about the cost of grief in America.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    A new and large form of COVID economic relief has opened in the U.S. just in the past few weeks. The federal government is now offering to pay for all or most of every funeral caused by the disease.

    Lisa Desjardins reports.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    It is perhaps the least-told cost of the last year, unexpected funerals, half-a-million of them, from the coronavirus. Families have shouldered a huge expense just to say goodbye from a distance, like at the funeral of Patricia Fernandez in Indio, California.

    The 75-year-old died in January after three weeks on a ventilator. For her daughter, Sandra, the emotional toll was almost unbearable.

  • Sandra Fernandez:

    For days and weeks, I woke up thinking, this is just a nightmare, until reality hits and you realize it's not a nightmare. She's not here anymore.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    And she's no longer there as the caregiver for Sandra's sister, Bertha (ph), who has disabilities. Sandra took over that care, while working as a school administrator, this as the cost of the funeral, embalming and burial reached nearly $13,000.

  • Sandra Fernandez:

    So, it was super hard to gather all that money, and stressful. None of us have that amount of money saved up, not for — not even half of that.

  • Sen. Chuck Schumer:

    That is outrageous.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The issue raised high-profile concern from now Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. And in two separate bills, including the American Rescue Plan, they pushed through tens of billions in help.

    The benefit is historic. The federal government will reimburse up to $9,000 in costs, about the average for a funeral in America. For families with multiple deaths, the limit is $35,000. That is for every coronavirus death since late January of last year, and going forward until 2025.

  • Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez:

    Today is the day. The hot line is open.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Ocasio-Cortez spread the word when FEMA opened the program nearly one month ago.

    But FEMA has never overseen an emergency death benefit on this scale before. No agency has. They chose to take applications by phone only to cater to each case. And, as headlines showed, it was a rough start. The phone lines crashed almost immediately under the stress of one million callers, including Sandra.

  • Sandra Fernandez:

    The first day, I couldn't get through, but the next day I tried it, and after waiting for an hour, I was able to see why it took so long for the call to be answered.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    As FEMA was overwhelmed, funeral directors like Omar Rodriguez also became inundated and frustrated.

  • Omar Rodriguez:

    For a year, I have just seen one dumb decision after another.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Rodriguez works at Neufeld Funeral Home in a neighborhood of Queens, New York, dubbed a COVID epicenter last spring.

    Rodriguez says this funeral benefit, even if well-intentioned, is tangled in red tape. For example, families must produce a death certificate that lists COVID-19 as the cause. But most death certificates in New York do not list a cause of death at all.

  • Omar Rodriguez:

    We're looking for other ways to get causes of death to people and notarized paid bills and all sorts of things. And it's just everyone, I guess, since they're learning about this program, it's like they're all coming at once.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Not a guy to mince words, he says politicians could have avoided this.

  • Omar Rodriguez:

    I just wish that these municipalities and the powers that be would consult with those of us that are down in the midst of all this.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    They say they consulted with like the national funeral homes director group.

  • Omar Rodriguez:

    Again, it's a waste. National, those are guys who haven't touched a stretcher, haven't embalmed a body, haven't been out in the road, a lot of people sitting behind desks looking and, oh, this is terrible, and not really in the midst of what's going on.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    By any standard, it is a massive undertaking. Already, FEMA says it's processing over 130,000 applications.

  • Chuck Schumer:

    You got to be a little bit patient, but at least there's going to be some help.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    We asked Schumer about the frustration, and he stressed that every state and county has a different process for death certificates, that FEMA is doing its best.

  • Chuck Schumer:

    They're going to help people — many of them are poor, many of them are immigrants — work through the status, work through the paperwork here, so they can get the relief they need.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    FEMA modeled its COVID benefit on funeral aid after natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy. But that storm's death toll was smaller, 131 people. Also getting attention, the $9,000 figure.

    What did you think when you found out about the size of this benefit?

  • Victoria Haneman:

    I was shocked, to put it mildly.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Victoria Haneman is a professor at Creighton University in Omaha who specializes in the rising cost of death care in the U.S., including what she calls funeral poverty. But she says this idea, to pay for any and all COVID funerals, is deeply flawed.

  • Victoria Haneman:

    We feel the need to react and provide assistance. But, in this case, because we are not means-testing, we are also providing assistance to high wealth and high-income individuals.

    And so while we want a safety net to assist those in need, a subsidy-for-all program kind of exacerbates inequities and unfairness.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Schumer responded, he believes people mostly will means-test themselves.

  • Chuck Schumer:

    The people who are going to apply are the people who are going to need it, overwhelmingly.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Lawmakers seldom pass such an open-ended benefit. It could take months to sort out exactly who uses it. But, in the meantime, Patricia Fernandez's funeral hovers still, leaving her family with memories, but also thousands in debt.

    Their GoFundMe effort to raise money fell far short. Now Sandra Fernandez hopes a check from FEMA arrives soon.

  • Sandra Fernandez:

    So, I'm just praying and hopeful that that money comes through and could help me in some way.

    We know that that money is not going to bring your loved one back, but at least it takes a little bit of your stress away.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Lisa Desjardins.

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