SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Families impacted by coronavirus are eligible for up to $9,000 in funeral costs, but the ABC7 News data team found less than one-third of eligible families nationwide have received assistance. In California, approximately 30% of eligible people have been awarded assistance.
When Kristin Urquiza's father passed away from COVID-19 she was struck by the tremendous loss.
"It really left in me not only deep grief and sadness, but what felt like a hurricane in my body," said Urquiza, founder of Marked by COVID.
Like most COVID-19 deaths, it was unexpected.
"We didn't have the $15,000 on hand to just make sure that he was taken care of in a dignified way," said Urquiza.
Urquiza applied for and received the maximum FEMA COVID-19 funeral assistance, $9,000, but says the process wasn't without roadblocks, including getting through by phone. Calling a dedicated hotline is the only way to apply.
The ABC7 News Data Team analysis of FEMA and CDC data, accurate as of March 15, found more than $2 billion in assistance has been given out to more than 300,000 applicants since the agency began accepting applications in April 2021. In California specifically, of the 38,086 people who applied, about 68 percent were approved. That's around 26,000 awards, but there have been more than 86,000 COVID-19 deaths in the state.
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To raise awareness, Matthew Peralta, Executive Director for the California Funeral Directors Association, says he's targeting communications in areas with high COVID-19 death rates and low FEMA assistance application numbers.
"Most of those areas were in the Central Valley," said Peralta.
One of the roadblocks some people are encountering is the cause of death listed on the death certificate.
"There are a lot of families who have loved ones that died in the beginning of the pandemic before testing was widely available," said Peralta.
According to FEMA, if the death certificate was issued between Jan. 20 and May 16 2020, it must either 1) attribute the death directly or indirectly to COVID-19 or 2) be accompanied by a signed statement from the original certifier of the death certificate, or the local medical examiner or coroner from the jurisdiction in which the death occurred, listing COVID-19 as a cause or contributing cause of death. This signed statement must provide an additional explanation or causal pathway, linking the cause of death listed on the death certificate to COVID-19.
If the death certificate occurred on or after May 17, 2020, the death certificate must attribute the death directly or indirectly to COVID-19.
Even then the process isn't always smooth.
Marisol Ramos' father passed away from COVID on January 9, 2021.
"It still doesn't seem real," said Ramos.
Ramos lives in Los Angeles. Her father passed away in New York. She says when she applied, she submitted two versions of her father's death certificate, including one that listed COVID-19 as the cause of death.
Still she says it took multiple follow-up calls to ultimately received the funds three months later.
"It's a very hard process to navigate. I know my aunt who lost both her husband and her son never applied just because she had trouble collecting documents," said Ramos.
Nationally, California ranks 13th in the percentage of applications approved.
"Persistence is key. If you're denied once, you keep trying and keep asking questions," said Ramos.
FEMA says delays in payment may be related to the death certificate, proof of funeral expenses or providing legible documents.
As of now, there is no deadline to apply for COVID-19 funeral assistance. You can apply by calling 844-684-6333.
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