By IKE WETLITZ
Searchlight New Mexico
Maia Duerr’s parents died from COVID-19 in January 2021. The pandemic was raging, so Duerr didn’t have funeral ceremonies. Instead, she opted for cremations, which cost about $7,000 total.
A few months later, she found out that the federal government would foot the bill.
“I just felt like, thank God, finally, there is some recognition,” said Duerr, a 60-year-old resident of Española, who had watched as then-President Trump downplayed the severity of the pandemic. She saw the reimbursement program as the government taking responsibility for some of its former negligence.
But unlike Duerr, many people who lost loved ones to COVID-19 have not applied to the program, which is run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. It is open to anyone who paid funeral-related expenses since Jan. 20, 2020 for someone who died from the coronavirus, and it provides up to $9,000 of reimbursement per death. Even though the virus has taken more than 900,000 lives in the United States, FEMA has only received about 413,000 applications, as of Feb. 7.
New Mexico’s application rate is below average. According to data provided by FEMA, only 41 percent of the state’s 6,473 COVID-19 deaths were listed on assistance applications, compared to a national rate of 49 percent, as of Feb. 1. Of New Mexico’s 2,518 applications, only 1,366 — or 54 percent — have been approved, as of Feb. 7. That’s the second lowest rate across the country.
When the money comes through, it can be a significant financial help in a country where funeral expenses can overwhelm families. The average funeral cost $7,848 in 2021, according to the National Funeral Directors Association.
Searchlight New Mexico spoke with seven funeral home directors, all of whom said they are distributing information about the FEMA program to anyone whose family member died of COVID-19.
“A lot of families don’t know,” said Jacob Shaw, a funeral director at Berardinelli Family Funeral Service in Santa Fe. “It’s still a fairly new thing.”
Michael McIntire, manager of Steed-Todd Funeral Home in Clovis, said that his operation has even been contacting families whose relatives died of COVID-19 in 2020 — before the program existed — and letting them know they might be eligible to apply.
An application starts with a phone call to a FEMA hotline. Then, applicants need to upload documentation proving the death was related to COVID-19, as well as records showing expenses incurred, to a FEMA website. Applicants can also fax or mail the records to the agency. FEMA determines whether the applicant is eligible for reimbursement and sends the payment.
The program is still open, and there’s currently no deadline for applying. People can get reimbursed even if they didn’t have a funeral service — the program pays for burial plots, headstones, caskets, urns and interment, among other expenses. (For people who have incurred multiple funeral expenses due to the loss of several loved ones, the maximum reimbursement is $35,500.)
For Duerr, the process took a while. She called FEMA in April 2021, shortly after the program began. She didn’t get the money until July, about three months later.
“It definitely was not soon,” Duerr said.
Bob Clifford, managing director of Rivera Family Funerals and Cremations, which has four locations in northern New Mexico, likewise said he’s hearing from families that it takes a long time to get the funds. Other funeral directors said they have not heard anything, positive or negative, from families about the program.
A FEMA spokesperson who did not provide his or her name wrote in an email to Searchlight that, as of Feb. 14, it takes the agency an average of 43 days to evaluate an application once it has received all of the documentation from a family.
Most of the applications in New Mexico are still being evaluated. Only 39 were declined outright, according to the FEMA spokesperson.
“It just takes time,” said Jessica Koth, director of public relations for the National Funeral Directors Association. “I would encourage families to be patient.”
Link to Searchlight New Mexico’s story (https://searchlightnm.org/pandemic-death-benefits-going-unused/)
Do you want to apply for FEMA’s COVID-19 funeral assistance program? Call 844.684.6333 between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. (Mountain Time), Monday through Friday, to start the application.
To find out more about the program, click here.