Linda Grether read the letter four times.
The thing was, John Grether wasn’t dead.
The Holiday Hills man wasn’t dead six months later, either, when a second letter arrived, or this December when a third letter arrived, but for some reason, John Grether kept getting reported as deceased to the Social Security Death Master File, resulting in a chain reaction that affected their health benefits, their Social Security income and his pension from his job as a construction company shop foreman.
Social Security receives death information from a variety of sources, primarily from family members, funeral homes, financial institutions and state governments, regional spokesman Doug Nguyen said in an email. Of the 2.8 million death reports Social Security posts each year, about 9,000 are found to be false.
That number is down from the average of more than 12,000 a year found to have been erroneously added to the Master Death File from May 2007 through April 2010 by the Social Security Administration’s Office of the Inspector General, according to a 2011 report.
Nguyen credits the increased use of electronic death registration, which automates Social Security’s receipt of death information. Illinois is among the 42 states using the system.
“Universal implementation of [the system] has the potential to virtually eliminate death reporting errors and would ensure that our death records – whether pertaining to current beneficiaries or other persons – include the most accurate and most current information,” Nguyen said in an email.
The Grethers have their suspicions for why the death reports keep happening, but they don’t understand why Social Security hasn’t been able to flag the account or otherwise prevent it from happening again.
“I just keep dying,” John Grether said. “Isn’t that something?”
Despite the wry humor, the experience has been anything but funny.
“We find out by accident [that he’s been reported deceased],” Linda Grether said. “Like all of a sudden, we’ll go fill a prescription and it’s not covered. Or the bank will call and [we] saw our accounts are over-drafted because they’ll just take the money away.”
The Grethers have had to go into the Woodstock office to prove John’s alive. They’ve spent two-plus hours on the phone each day for a week trying to get their benefits restored and to figure out how to prevent it from happening again.
When John Grether’s breathing got worse, a result of his chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, he couldn’t go to an immediate care center. They had to use his nebulizer at home.
“Until you even get a little bit, you don’t understand just how devastating the whole thing is,” Linda Grether said. “I mean, we just sat here nights and just cried because we have no way to do anything. We’re at their mercy.”
Social Security reached out to Grether after the Northwest Herald contacted them about the Grethers’ situation and is looking into what can be done.
(NOTE: Summary Report from the Social Security Administration’s Office Of The Inspector General)
Our objective was to determine the status of corrective actions taken by the Social Security Administration (SSA) to address recommendations in our June 2008 report, Personally Identifiable Information Made Available to the General Public Via the Death Master File SSA implemented procedures to report erroneous death entry-related personally identifiable information (PII) breaches to the United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team each week. SSA also hired a contractor to provide ongoing reviews of Death Master File (DMF) exposure related to 26,930 individuals whose Personally Identifiable Information, SSA inadvertently exposed from July 2006 through January 2009. The contractor evaluated available data for anomalous patterns that could identify organized misuse. SSA stated that, to date, the contractor has identified no organized misuse. However, SSA did not implement a risk- based approach for distributing DMF information, attempt to limit the amount of information included on the DMF version sold to the public, or explore alternatives to inclusion of individuals’ full Social Security number (SSN). SSA continued to publish the DMF with the knowledge its contents included the Personally Identifiable Information of living number holders.