Families who lost loved ones to COVID-19 can now get help with funeral expenses from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, though the program got off to a bumpy start.
The agency launched on Monday a hotline -- 844-684-6333 -- to apply for up to $9,000 in assistance per burial.
While FEMA has aided families with disaster-related burial costs in the past, the COVID-19 effort is the largest of its type. Some $2 billion was allocated as part of the $900 billion relief deal Congress approved in December, while the Democrats' $1.9 trillion package last month bolstered it by providing the agency with an additional $50 billion to use for coronavirus-related costs.
The program's debut was marked by busy signals and "technical issues," the agency said Monday, noting it had received "thousands of calls" on its first day of operation.
"We ask that applicants be patient as we work to correct these issues and have all their important documents ready when they call to apply," FEMA said. "Please know there is no deadline to apply and applicants will have the ability to open a case."
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While the agency has "done funeral assistance in disasters, we've never done anything at this scale or scope," acting Administrator Robert Fenton told Congress last month.
FEMA opted to register applicants by phone rather than online because of the sensitive nature of the program.
"Right now, our focus is empathy when we talk about individuals that have lost loved ones. We want to make sure that we do it in an empathetic way," Fenton said. "We think that again with empathy being the priority, we want to be able to case manage and have that human-to-human interaction as we do this."
To qualify, the death must have occurred in the US or its territories, and funeral expenses must have been incurred after January 20, 2020. The death certificate must indicate that the death was attributed to or likely caused by COVID-19 or coronavirus-like symptoms.
While the applicant must be a US citizen or legal resident, there is no requirement that the deceased person meet this criteria.
Covered expenses include the transfer of remains, burial plot, casket, clergy services, cremation and headstone, among other costs. But the aid will be reduced if the applicant received benefits from burial or funeral insurance or financial assistance from other sources.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, both New York Democrats, have been pushing for the aid since the pandemic began ravaging their state in March 2020.
"We started fighting for burial relief a year ago, after Elmcor told us families were choosing between burying their loved ones with dignity and paying rent," Ocasio-Cortez tweeted Monday, referring to a New York City-based non-profit group. "Today, those families will finally start to see some relief. Thank you to @SenSchumer for his partnership on this effort."
More than 562,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the US.