116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Iowa families — as well as families nationwide — who lost a loved one to COVID-19 can receive disaster relief to help cover funeral expenses, federal officials have announced.
The Biden administration plans an assistance program that will give up to $9,000 to cover the burial costs of each American who died of the disease, the largest program of its type ever offered by the federal government. The program is open to families, regardless of their income, as long as they show documentation and have not already gotten similar benefits through another program.
There’s no deadline to apply, as the program is ongoing and any future COVID-19 deaths will be eligible.
Local funeral home directors already have notified families and offered assistance in applying for the program, which officially opens Monday. One Iowa City-based funeral director described the aid as a “very thoughtful thing to do in a very difficult time.”
“For many families, it will mean a lot,” said Michael Lensing, co-owner of Lensing Funeral & Cremation Service in Iowa City. “It’s difficult to have to receive assistance in that way, but it’s thoughtful.”
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has reimbursed burial costs before, but it has never offered as large a payment to so many people. In 2017, for example, FEMA paid $2.6 million to 976 people for funeral costs of victims of three hurricanes — an average of $2,664 per applicant.
But the novel coronavirus' immense toll means a burial assistance program of an unprecedented scale is now being assembled. More than 557,000 Americans have died of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. That includes more than 5,800 deaths in Iowa, according to the state’s coronavirus website.
"It will not diminish their grief, but it’ll help if it was an unexpected death and if they had other medical expenses,“ said Peter Teahen, funeral director for Teahen Funeral Home in Cedar Rapids.
In order to apply for funeral assistance from the federal program, families must:
• Call 844-684-6333. Online applications will not be accepted.
• Then applicants must provide documentation to FEMA through an online account, by mail or by fax.
Many funeral homes took extra precautions when preparing the deceased throughout the past year, particularly if that individual had died from the novel coronavirus. However, additional costs from the added precautions were not reflected on families’ burial expenses this past year, said Suzanne Gebel, executive director of the Iowa Funeral Directors Association.
Because the number of people who will be eligible is not known, neither is the program's ultimate cost — but it will easily be several billion dollars. FEMA is setting up a dedicated toll-free hotline — 1-844-684-6333 — and a call center to answer questions about the program and take applications.
"Although we cannot change what has happened, we affirm our commitment to help with funeral and burial expenses that many families did not anticipate," acting FEMA administrator Bob Fenton said in a statement. The death certificate must show COVID-19 as a cause or contributing factor in the death.
In the early weeks of the pandemic, many victims, especially those in nursing homes, were suspected of dying of COVID-19 but testing was limited. In many cases, overwhelmed doctors and nurses were more concerned with caring for the living rather than testing the dead. Many death certificates, therefore, did not mention COVID-19.
If the virus did contribute to their loved one’s death, but is not listed on the documentation, families should contact their doctors to see if an amendment can be made, Gebel said.
If any other assistance was already received — from money available to veterans, or burial insurance or some other program — the aid "will be reduced by the amount of other assistance the applicant received for the same expenses,“ FEMA stated.
The program also will not provide assistance for funds that already were set aside in a contract with a funeral home to cover burial expenses, Gebel said. However, she added if a funeral was covered by a life insurance policy or other funds set aside for those expenses, the federal program will offer assistance.
Funeral aid was held up during the worst of the crisis last year until then-President Donald Trump signed a nearly $1 trillion stimulus bill in the final weeks of his administration. The details were never made clear, but the maximum benefit discussed at the time was $7,000 and the funeral assistance program was to be capped at $2 billion.
After President Joe Biden took office and signed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan last month, the program was expanded. The funeral aid — even if it doubles from the $2 billion in the measure signed by Trump — still is a tiny fraction of the $1.9 trillion bill, which was opposed by all but a few congressional Republicans.
There are significant challenges in administrating a program of this type. Already, the FEMA website describing the funeral assistance program is alerting people to possible scams: "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 prior to them registering for assistance."
According to FEMA, applicants must be "a U.S. citizen, non-citizen national, or qualified alien" who paid for funeral expenses after Jan. 20, 2020. In addition, the applicant must show a death certificate that states that the death occurred in the United States and "may have been caused by or was likely the result of COVID-19."
The bulk of those eligible have already paid the expenses and must produce receipts and other documentation of what was paid for caskets or urns, burial plots, headstones, funerals, and other costs detailed by FEMA.
The Washington Post and Michaela Ramm from The Gazette contributed to this report. Comments: 319-398-8469; email@example.com