LOUISVILLE, Ky. — In the six weeks since the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) began processing applications for its funeral assistance program, more than 2,600 Kentuckians have submitted applications in hopes of offsetting the costs of losing a loved one to COVID-19. Only 39 of those applications have been approved, according to numbers released by FEMA this week.
Tammy Simmons, whose mother Bettie Stevenson died last October, is one of the thousands waiting for resolution.
“My husband and I had to charge the funeral on two credit cards with interest, so yes, this was a hardship,” Simmons said.
The funeral assistance program was created by the federal government to provide up to $9,000 for families who endured the financial pain that came with losing someone during the pandemic. Eligible expenses include the cost of a casket, clergy, funeral home and burial plot. Participation requires a death certificate indicating that “the death was attributed to COVID-19,” according to FEMA's website.
But numbers from FEMA show that the money is slowly trickling out to struggling families. According to its latest figures, only 4.9% of applicants for the program have been approved across all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. Of the $2 billion appropriated for the program, just $66 million has been awarded.
In Kentucky, the percentage is even smaller, with 2,634 applications and only 39 approvals. That’s only 1.4%. Bordering states are seeing similarly low numbers. In Indiana and Tennessee, 1% of applicants have been successful, the third and fourth worst rates in the country. Ohio, 17% of applicants have received a check, more than any state in the nation. FEMA did not respond to a request for a comment.
Applying to the program requires a phone call to FEMA, which is where Simmons believes the problems with her application began.
“It has errors due to the FEMA representative keying in wrong information that I repeated to him multiple times,” she said. “The inaccurate data included the wrong date of death, address of the hospital where her death took place and her last name.”
For now, Simmons said her application is still pending. The $9,000 that could come her way would be big, she said. When Simmons mother died, she had no burial insurance or life insurance. Simmons said her siblings were not in a position to help with the $13,000 price tag. "We have absorbed all of the cost of her funeral," she said of her and her husband.
At Newcomer Funeral Home in Louisville, funeral director Jim Hill said he’s not surprised by the rocky roll out of the FEMA program.
“I think they initiated this program as a knee-jerk reaction, and they hadn't thought out all the processing ramifications and probably didn't anticipate this many people actually filing for it,” he said.
Despite the delays, Simmons said she's optimistic about the relief that she hopes will come soon.
"COVID has taken so many, I figured there would be a huge delay with all of the applicants,” she said. "Right now, I’m hopeful and grateful."
Once she's approved, she may also be able to finally get her mother a headstone. "I haven’t been able to afford yet," she said.