As the United States surpasses 1 million deaths from COVID-19, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is urging those who lost loved ones to the coronavirus to use its COVID-19 Funeral Assistance fund.
The fund is a federal program that offers up to $9,000 to cover the cost of a funeral for someone who died of COVID-19. The program, which has no end date, covers deaths attributed to the coronavirus as far back as January 2020.
As of April 2022, less than half the people believed eligible for the program had applied for it.
"As our nation mourns the 1 million death mark and the immense impact the pandemic has had on our country, we remain committed to providing assistance with the compassion, fairness, integrity and respect these families deserve," said Jaclyn Rothenberg, the director of public affairs for FEMA.
How does the funeral assistance work?
To apply for funeral assistance, applicants must call (844) 684-6333, where FEMA representatives will take their call. The application must be completed over the phone and the process takes about 20 minutes, according to Rothenberg.
The applicant will also have to submit supporting documents, including any relevant receipts, a death certificate listing the coronavirus as a cause of death, and any other necessary paperwork, like funeral home contracts or invoices.
After the paperwork is received, it takes FEMA "approximately 45 days to make an eligibility decision," Rothenberg said. According to the agency, as of May 4 over 356,000 of 496,582 applicants have been deemed eligible for funeral assistance, and around 119,000 applications are still pending a decision. Only 20,700 applicants have been deemed ineligible.
Families who had multiple deaths due to the coronavirus can also apply. One family can receive up to $35,000 across multiple funerals.
How will I receive the funds?
According to Rothenberg, after an application is approved, funds will either be deposited into a bank account or sent by mail via check. Funds usually arrive within a few days of approval.
Ed Michael Reggie, the founder of Funeralocity, a site that educates people about the cost and process of funerals, noted that the up-to-$9,000 payment can make a significant impact, since the average funeral in the United States costs around $8,000.
"It's a very rich program, and yet just under half of (eligible applicants) have even applied for it," Reggie told TODAY.
Are there any scams I should be on the lookout for?
There have been no reports of scammers trying to use the program to get funds dispersed to themselves, but Reggie warned that people should be aware that all contact will be direct through FEMA, not a funeral home or other party.
"I don't believe scammers are going to call the federal government and try to squeeze $9,000 out of them," Reggie said, noting that obituaries often include information like surviving family members, funeral home details and the person's cause of death. "The (possibility) is they're going to call the family and say, 'Hey, we're from the funeral home, we're going to help get your reimbursement, give me the information and we'll help you fill it out.'"
Reggie said that though there have yet to be reports of cases like this, it is something families should "be aware of."
Rothenberg said that part of why FEMA asks applicants to call is to prevent fraud.
"There’s always a chance for fraudulent activity with these types of programs and FEMA traditionally has systems in place to prevent it," she explained. "That said, we’ve put even more new processes in place designed for this specific program including only taking registration over the phone to protect against fraud."
Why does this program exist?
The FEMA Funeral Assistance program is part of the American Rescue Plan, a stimulus package passed in 2021 in an effort to help the country financially manage amid the pandemic.
"There were so, so many people suffering from COVID-19, and the cost of a funeral if you're having trouble putting food on the table during this difficult time ... can be an extra burden," said Rothenberg. "We wanted to offer funds for people to be able to provide a proper burial for their loved ones."
Reggie said he has seen the program bring families some peace.
"These deaths, even for people with serious medical conditions, came sooner than expected," he said. "(Financially), families can recover here. ... It has a big impact on people."