Troubleshooters: Major backlog for federal COVID-19 funeral assistance

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- Families who lost loved ones to COVID-19 can get their funeral costs reimbursed by the federal government.

But, Action News has learned many families are still waiting for their money.

$2 billion was allocated to the funeral assistance program to help families in mourning, but only a fraction was released.

Lori Maimone's father, Joe Spina, died on March 31 from COVID-19.

"We made it to the hospital to see him before they went in," she said. "So at least we got to kiss him, and that was the last time we saw him."

Maimone says they could not have a traditional funeral because of restrictions at the time amid COVID-19.

"But we had to pay for the transportation, and we still had to pay for all of the normal things that you would do if you were having a service basically," she said.

To help families like hers pay for those kinds of expenses, the federal government launched the funeral assistance program.

It provides reimbursement of up to $9,000 for funeral, internment, or cremation costs for COVID-19-related deaths after January 20, 2020.

And currently, there's no registration deadline.

"It's an amazing benefit," said Ed Michael Reggie, CEO of Funeralcity.com. "Regardless of income of the family."

But the only way to apply is to call.

Maimone did that the day the program went live.

"I sat on hold for almost seven hours," she said. "And then when I got to I was calling number one from caller number 3000 then they said the office was closed."

Eventually, Maimone did get through and registered for the program which FEMA runs.

However, the agency's own figures show there is still a backlog of applications.

"A huge backlog," said Reggie.

Nationwide, $2.2 billion is available, but only 4.9% or $66 million was approved.

And in New Jersey, 8.7% of those who've registered have been awarded the money.

In Delaware, it's 6.4% and in Pennsylvania 3.4%, with the vast majority of families waiting for reimbursement.

"The whole situation was so difficult and heart-wrenching to begin with, so my heart goes out to them," said Maimone.

Fortunately for Maimone, she did get her check two weeks ago.

"My family and I were very happy to receive it and did help out a lot for us," she said.

FEMA said it wants families to know, the current application processing time is 19 to 25 days once it receives all documentation.

The agency released the following statement:
"FEMA is actively processing applications and working with applicants to collect the necessary documentation to process their claims. Just because an applicant has not received funds does not mean they have not been approved.

The process can take some time, but applicants can rest assured we are working on providing reimbursement for eligible applicants with properly documented and eligible expenses.

In many cases, applicants do not have the necessary documentation when they initiate their claim, which can impact the timeline for those applications.

We encourage applicants to ensure they meet the eligibility criteria and collect all documentation related to funeral expenses and the passing of the decedent before they call."
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