Funeral Assistance

San Diegans Wait for FEMA to Process Thousands of COVID Funeral-Assistance Applications

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is processing tens of thousands of applications for its COVID-19 funeral-assistance program.

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Although the Federal Emergency Management Agency started accepting applications April 12 for its funeral-assistance program, some San Diegans are still waiting for their reimbursements.

One local applicant, Carmen Ponce, said she submitted documents to FEMA after having the death of her mother, Elva D. Castano, due to COVID-19 complications Dec. 21. Among the documents Ponce submitted to FEMA was a copy of her and her mother’s ID, Social Security cards, a death certificate, receipts from her mother’s cremation and a letter from her mother’s doctor verifying her death was related to the virus.

Ponce said she’s still having trouble getting her paperwork verified.

“It still is incredibly hard,” Ponce said, as she reflected on her mother’s death.

The documents are another reminder her mother, a grandmother of three, is no longer with her.

“I have to understand that I’m not the only one,” Ponce said.

Ponce is one of thousands who are waiting for reimbursement from FEMA.

“This is the one last step toward gaining back the financial freedom I need to get back to,” Ponce said, adding, "They told me, ‘We have given you your disaster ID, we have given you your FEMA ID. You can create your account online or call back'’ The day I tried to create my account, it crashed."

According to a FEMA representative, the agency has received 21,467 applications from California as of Monday. Each application is reviewed manually, on a case-by-case basis. So far, FEMA has distributed $7 million dollars across the state, but it’s not clear how many San Diegans are recipients, since FEMA doesn’t share county-specific data.

Meanwhile, Ponce said she’s waiting for her paperwork to be verified.

“It’s like I’m waiting for a chapter to be closed," Ponce said. "That’s what I’m waiting on: to give me a sense of closure, a sense of comfort, a sense of my mom’s death was not in vain.”

The FEMA representative said applications are reviewed once all required documentation has been submitted and added, “Once a complete packet is received, current data indicates it takes between 19 to 25 business days to process a claim. Once the final approval has been made, the funds are disbursed fairly quickly and if the applicant elected to receive funds via electronic funds transfer, the approved and disbursed funds would likely be in their account within a couple of days. However, some applicants still elect to receive payment via check, which would take longer as it also depends on the speed of mail delivery.”

On FEMA’s website, a Fraud Alert warns applicants about scammers. The alert reads:

Fraud Alert: We have received reports of scammers reaching out to people offering to register them for funeral assistance. FEMA has not sent any such notifications and we do not contact people before they register for assistance.

The FEMA representative said applicants who have questions about the legitimacy of a phone call should hang up and report it to the FEMA Helpline at 800-621-3362 or the National Center for Fraud Hotline at 866-720-5721 or contact local law enforcement.

FEMA Answers NBC 7's Questions

  1. How long is the delay in getting California and/or San Diego applicants reimbursed?

Staff begin processing an applicant’s file once all of the documentation is received. This is a manual process between FEMA and the applicant. FEMA is giving applicants additional time over the normal 90-day window to submit documents, knowing that death certificates and amendments to death certificates may require more time. Applicants, therefore, have six months to provide documentation.

Current data indicates it takes between 19 to 25 business days to process a claim once all of the required documents are received.

There is no deadline to apply. 

  1. I understand there have been scams surrounding the program. To what extent? Are people submitting fraudulent paperwork to receive funds? Are legitimate applicants getting scammed?

Before this commitment launched, numerous fraud preventions were written into the policy. On all fronts, we feel these controls are accomplishing what they were designed to do. We are unaware of widespread scams plaguing this assistance. Nor have we ever reported such scams are taking place. If “legitimate applicants” are being scammed, it is without FEMA’s participation.

If an applicant has questions whether a call is legitimate, hang up and report it to the FEMA Helpline at 800-621-3362 or the National Center for Fraud Hotline at 866-720-5721. Complaints also may be made by contacting local law enforcement agencies. 

  1. Are the scams related to the delay?

The most important goal of this program is to help those who lost someone due to COVID-19. Staff begin processing an applicant’s file once all of the documentation is received. Case review is a manual process between FEMA and the applicant.

FEMA is giving applicants additional time over the normal 90-day window to submit documents knowing that death certificates and amendments to death certificates may require more time. Applicants therefore have six months to provide documentation.

  1. What can applicants do to make the process more efficient for themselves and FEMA?

Submitting all of the required documents in a timely fashion helps expedite the review process. All applications should include an official death certificate that indirectly or directly attributes the death to COVID-19 and shows the death occurred in the United States. For more information on required documentation, please go to FEMA.gov.

  1. When can some of the first applicants, who submitted paperwork on April 12, expect to receive funds?

Applications are reviewed once all of the required documentation has been submitted. Once a complete packet is received, current data indicates it takes between 19 to 25 business days to process a claim.

Once the final approval has been made, the funds are disbursed fairly quickly, and if the applicant elected to receive funds via electronic funds transfer, the approved and disbursed funds would likely be in their account within a couple of days. However, some applicants still elect to receive payment via check, which would take longer as it also depends on the speed of mail delivery.

FEMA has never delivered this type of assistance on a national scale. Within the past six weeks since the initiative’s launch, we have disbursed more than $66 million.

  1. Have any California applicants received reimbursements? Any in San Diego?

FEMA releases state-specific data every Monday. As of today, more than $7 million has been released in funeral-assistance funds to residents of California who have filed an application. At this time, we are not releasing county-specific data.

  1. What is the total number of applications submitted by Californians so far? What about in San Diego?

FEMA releases state-specific data every Monday. As of today, 21,467 applications have been created on behalf of residents of California. At this time, we are not releasing county-specific data. 

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