Federal program helps pay COVID-19 funeral expenses

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Apr. 6—Local funeral directors are reviewing their records and preparing to reach out to families who are eligible for federal assistance for COVID-19-related funeral expenses.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency will begin taking applications for the grants on Monday.

A national application hotline, 844-684-6333, will activate Monday. Currently, it provides recorded information about the program.

"At FEMA, our mission is to help people before, during and after disasters," acting administrator Bob Fenton said in a press release. "The COVID-19 pandemic has caused immense grief for so many people. Although we cannot change what has happened, we affirm our commitment to help with funeral and burial expenses that many families did not anticipate."

Grants of up to $9,000 are available for those who incurred funeral expenses for someone whose death was attributed to COVID-19. Those who paid for more than one COVID-19 funeral may be reimbursed up to $35,500.

FEMA is warning some scam artists are already taking advantage of eligible families.

"We have received reports of scammers reaching out to people offering to register them for funeral assistance," the agency said in a press release. "FEMA has not sent any such notifications and we do not contact people prior to them registering for assistance."

Local funeral directors say they are checking which families may be eligible and are identifying documents they may need for the application.

"I'm glad this is there for families who suffered financially," said Alexis Peifer, a funeral director with Frank Duca Funeral Home Inc. "We are here to help families in any way we can."

Applicants must provide:

—An official death certificate that attributes the death to COVID-19 and shows that the death occurred in the United States.

—Funeral expense documents, such as dated receipts or a funeral home contract.

Expenses paid with funeral insurance or through an advance planning payments by the deceased will not be reimbursed.

Some of the eligible expenses include:

—Transportation for up to two individuals to identify the deceased individual.

—Transfer of remains.

—Casket or urn.

—Burial plot or cremation niche.

—Marker or headstone.

—Clergy or officiant services.

—Arrangement of the funeral ceremony.

—Use of funeral home equipment or staff.

—Cremation or interment costs.

—Costs associated with producing and certifying multiple death certificates.

—Additional expenses mandated by any applicable local or state government laws or ordinances.

William Harris, president of William Harris Funeral Home Inc., said he's preparing to contact at least 14 families that appear to be eligible for the federal reimbursement.

"I went back through our files and looked to see what COVID deaths we had that were not prepaid," Harris said. "We are preparing information to send to them."

Harris and Peifer said the Pennsylvania Funeral Directors Association is providing members with guidance.

Some who died in local hospitals' COVID-19 isolation units did not have COVID-19 on the death certificate, Harris said.

"They have to go back to the doctor for the ruling," Harris said. "That concerns me a little bit."

Cambria County's 406 COVID-19 death total is most severe among the state's larger counties.

The mortality rate is about 312 deaths for every 100,000 residents and the highest among 31 counties with at least 100,000 people.

Somerset County has had 170 deaths, or 259 per 100,000 residents; Bedford County has had 130 deaths, or 220 per 100,000 residents; and Blair County has had 314 deaths, or 260 per 100,000 residents.

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