WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The federal government is working to alleviate the costs associated with burying loved ones who have died from COVID-19.
The program first began taking applications April 12, allowing families to be reimbursed up to $9,000.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency recently announced they have now provided more than $447 million to 66,800 people to assist with COVID-19-related funeral costs.
SPECIAL COVERAGE: Coronavirus
Figures provided by FEMA show there have been 12,959 applications in Florida seeking burial assistance for the coronavirus.
The federal government says 3,658 applications have already been approved in Florida, allocating $21.1 million to families who have lost loved ones from the disease.
The latest figures from the CDC show that there have been 37,963 deaths from the coronavirus in Florida since the pandemic began last year.
Son seeks help after losing mother
Angel Melendez Olavarria is among those who lost a family member from COVID-19. His 82-year-old mother died in the hospital in February after a bout with the coronavirus.
He's among those who have applied for FEMA's COVID-19 funeral assistance.
"She was always cooking and dancing, and she always worked hard, really hard," Olavarria said.
The last time he saw his mom was when she was being loaded onto an ambulance on a stretcher before going to the hospital.
For thousands of families in Florida who lost a relative to COVID-19, this is their last memory of their loved one.
From a tablet, he said the hospital staff showed him his mom unconscious and no longer able to breathe on her own.
"You feel powerless because you would like to do something to save her, to be able to see her again, but the only thing you can do is press a button to say, 'Take her away.' It was really really hard. It still hurts," Olavarria said.
He and his brothers were able to organize a small celebration of life after cremating their mother, but their hope is to have a permanent spot for her in a cemetery with a headstone and a place to store her ashes.
"To have a place that those who were not able to attend because of COVID can go in and say goodbye, it's something important for us to have and that costs about $3,000 for us to do that," Olavarria said.
He was told by FEMA that it will take 45 to 60 days to approve his application and then a period of time to receive the funds.
New Funeral Assistance Policy
FEMA announced Tuesday they are amending its COVID-19 funeral assistance policy for deaths that occurred in the early months of the pandemic.
The agency said it will allow applicants to submit a statement or letter from the death certificate's certifying official, medical examiner, or coroner that attributes the death to COVID-19 fatalities that occurred between Jan. 20 and May 16, 2020.
Applicants who incurred COVID-19-related funeral expenses between those dates will now be able to submit a death certificate that does not attribute the death to COVID-19. However, they will have to provide a signed statement from a certifying official linking the death to COVID-19.
All of this is because, in the early stages of the pandemic, many death certificates may have not specified the death was due to COVID.
"The written statement must show causal pathway, or an explanation, linking the cause of death listed on the death certificate to the virus and should be submitted with the death certificate," FEMA says.
They said the change will help provide flexibility when attributing a death to COVID-19 without amending the death certificate.
If the COVID-19 death occurred after May 16, 2020, FEMA said the funeral assistance documentation must include a copy of a death certificate that attributes the death to the coronavirus.
Visit the FEMA website to learn more about COVID-19 funeral assistance.
FEMA COVID-19 Funeral FAQs
1. Is the application difficult to complete?
Response: All registrations are done manually, one on one, through a dedicated toll free number. The system was designed specifically for families who are grieving to talk with a trained specialist who can help them with registration and answer any questions they might have. Our trained specialists do not rush the process and take their time responding to applicant’s questions and explaining the program.
To apply for assistance, call the COVID-19 Funeral Assistance Helpline at 844-684-6333 | TTY: 800-462-7585 from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. ET, Monday - Friday.
Applicants who use a relay service, such as a videophone, InnoCaption or CapTel should provide FEMA with the specific number assigned to them for that service so agency representatives are able to contact them. Phone calls from FEMA may come from an unidentified number.
2. Did FEMA amend the Funeral Assistance program policy because of low awards?
Response: No, FEMA amended the agency’s COVID-19 funeral assistance policy to assist with COVID-19 related deaths that occurred in the early months of the pandemic. FEMA understands proper COVID-19 classification and documentation early in the pandemic was difficult to obtain for many reasons. We also recognize some jurisdictions may have barriers to amending death certificates. We adapted the interim policy for those COVID-19-related deaths that occurred early in the pandemic to accommodate those challenges. The amended policy provides applicants, as well as medical authorities, coroners and jurisdictions, flexibility to attribute a death to COVID-19 without amending the death certificate. The change also provides flexibility with documentation for the period before the CDC-published and implemented COVID-19 death certificate guidance in the spring of 2020
3. What does FEMA say is reason for so few awards?
Response: Case review is driven by how soon an applicant submits all required documentation. Chances are an application is pending or awaiting an eligibility determination because we haven’t received all the required documentation from the applicant.
The most common delays are caused when an applicant sends incomplete or illegible documents. Also, sending large batches of documents that are not organized or identified can delay an eligibility determination.
4. Is there a limit to how many applications are granted?
Response: At this time, there is no limit.
5. Is there a cap on total federal funds available to each state?
Response: Since FEMA began taking COVID-19 funeral assistance applications, the agency has awarded more than $500 million in assistance. Currently, there is no cap on federal funding.
6. Does every applicant receive the same award amount?
Response: No. Each applicant has different circumstances and costs associated with their case.
Below is the latest figures for each state related to the FEMA assistance program (click here for app version):
|State/Territory||Applications||Amount Approved||Number of Awards|
|AMERICAN SAMOA||Less than 10||$0||0|
|COMMONWEALTH OF THE NORTHERN MARIANAS||Less than 10||$4,344||Less than 10|
|DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA||454||$846,955||122|
|GUAM||11||$20,436||Less than 10|
|UNITED STATES VIRGIN ISLANDS||22||$29,885||Less than 10|