Research Note: The SSDI (Part II)

This article is about the Social Security Death Index, not Social Security Disability Insurance.

In our last post we learned a few things about the Social Security Death Index. First we found out that the government doesn’t use the term SSDI; this term is used by nongovernmental concerns to describe the product that they derive from the Social Security Administration’s Death Master File. These nongovernmental entities receive the DMF from the National Technical Information Service (NTIS), a bureau within the Department of Commerce. Individuals may purchase the DMF directly from NTIS in a variety of forms. And here’s a handy link to understanding the architecture of the DMF, if you are technically inclined to explore the infrastructure of the product.  You can use the information to construct your own custom queries of the DMF.

We also discovered that 90% of the information in the DMF, and thus in the SSDI, comes from “first party” reports; that is, from private individuals (usually family members or potential beneficiaries), funeral homes, nursing facilities, etc. The Social Security Administration adds these reports immediately into the DMF. The DMF has coding that indicates verification or proof of death. On some versions of the SSDI this comes out something like this: “V = verified (family member contact)” and “P = proved (death certificate observed).”

There is always the issue of accuracy of a product like the SSDI or the DMF. Numerous studies have been done on this issue over the years. The main concern is not that someone who is dead will be left off the SSDI; that happens all the time, usually because of the lack of a report of death. The greater public concern is that someone who is alive will be listed as dead on the DMF. Statistically the occurrences of this error are rare but they are frequent enough and the consequences severe enough to warrant close scrutiny by the SSA. The consequences include termination of Social Security benefits, loss of the ability to get credit, even the loss of a job.

And an even greater consequence of erroneous death reporting is identity theft. That’s because the SSDI or DMF contain personally identifiable information on individuals. That’s not such a big deal if you’re dead, but if your date of birth and Social Security number are published while you are alive, well, you can imagine what might happen.

In early 2009, the Inspector General of the Social Security Administration reported on the sources of DMF errors. See the table below.

Sources of Error in Death Reporting

Source: Social Security Administration, Office of the Inspector General, Sources of Erroneous Death Entries Input into the Death Master File, Audit Report No. A-06-09-29095, 4 Feb 2009

These data should relieve the anxiety of those who are concerned about first party reports. The fact is there simply no incentive to to erroneously report a death to the SSA, and only the worst of motives for doing so deliberately. In fact, one might suggest that in some cases there is a greater incentive not to report a death to the SSA. Doing away with first party reports is not among the solutions to the error problems with the DMF. As the SSA IG observed:

SSA would have to turn away widows or other family members who visit a field office to report a death until it receives “official” notification from the State before initiating or terminating related benefit claims. SSA would also have to stop processing death reports received directly from other non-State sources, such as funeral homes, postal authorities, etc. . . . .

Eliminating first-party reports of death information would delay the processing of claims, increase erroneous payments, and cause public relations problems.

So how does the SSA keep the DMF accurate and up-to-date? One way that’s taken on greater prominence is the use of the Electronic Death Registration system (EDR). The system allows states to report deaths directly to SSA. While states do that presently, EDR enhances the accuracy of the reporting by allowing the states to verify the Social Security number online before the report is sent. The preceding table seems to indicate that EDR reporting is significantly less error-prone than other forms of reporting. The SSA has undertaken other internal steps, including new technology and training, to reduce staff errors in death report inputs.

Another important fact is that subscribers to the DMF who publish the data are contractually obligated to correct and update the data as they get new data from NTIS.

How do you report an unreported death? Call the SSA toll-free at 1-800-772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778), 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Friday. You need to have the deceased person’s Social Security number when you call.

How do you correct an error in the SSDI? Go to the nearest local field office of the SSA and take proof of the correct information with you. If it is verified by the SSA, the correction will appear as soon as possible in a weekly or quarterly update to the DMF.

OFF
Craig


May 2011
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