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Loved one died of COVID? Federal program to help is drastically underutilized

FEMA offering up to $9,000 reimbursement
FEMA COVID funeral program is underutilized as thousands have died in OH.
Posted at 6:00 AM, Oct 18, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-18 07:00:52-04

CLEVELAND — COVID has killed hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S. Relatives left behind have to deal with the sudden loss and then funerals for their loved ones. A federal program to help with those expenses was launched six months ago, but it has been underutilized.

Nicole Sitka's story starts last November, the night before Thanksgiving. Stika’s husband was not feeling well and her mother-in-law had symptoms like a sinus infection.

“We had kept our bubble extremely tight,” said Stika, of Solon. “It was just the six of us. We hadn't gone out anywhere except to the grocery store… wearing masks.”

Because of that, she went to Thanksgiving dinner at her parents’ house. However, a few days later, her mom was not well, and her father wasn’t either. Her father-in-law tested positive for COVID.

“COVID doesn't discriminate as to who gets it and who doesn’t,” said Stika.

The loss she and her husband have gone through is unthinkable.

“I'm still in shock to this day,” she said.

Three all at once
In a matter of days, they lost so much.

“My father-in-law passed on the 18th of December, my dad on December 19th, and my mom on the 20th,” she said.

The thought of it all still brings tears.

“And to see them in that state, it was horrific,” Stika said. “I mean the COVID unit (at the hospital) was a war zone.”

As if one funeral wasn’t bad enough, now three final arrangements all at once. “Who to go? Where to go? When to go? What's the appropriate cost? That's just mind-numbing,” Stika remembered.

FEMA Funeral Assistance Program
What most people don’t know is there’s help available. “We cannot bring back the loved ones, but we can help ease the burden of this terrible pandemic,” said Dan Shulman from FEMA.

Nearly anyone who lost a loved one to COVID is eligible for up to $9,000 in funeral expenses funded by FEMA. Recent data shows there have been more than 700,000 deaths from COVID nationwide, but only 293,000 have applied for funeral reimbursement. Ohio has seen nearly 23,000 die form COVID, and only 9,700 have applied for the program.

Why so few? FEMA says it's similar to the same reasons some storm victims don’t take advantage of benefits. “They fear that they're taking away a benefit from someone else,” said Shulman. “There's (also) a fear that the process is burdensome. We'll do everything we can to make it as easy as possible.”

FEMA won't call you — watch out for scammers
“The biggest problem is that Americans don't know about this incredibly generous program,” said Ed Michael Reggie who runs the funeral industry website Funeralocity.com. He is helping to make people aware of the FEMA program but is also warning about scammers watching the obituaries.

He said everyone needs to be careful of calls from people saying they’re from FEMA and asking for personal info to sign you up.

“The next thing you know they're going to put credit cards in that Social Security number and create an identity theft for the family,” warned Reggie.

FEMA will never call you.

“When I finally got through, it was easy,” said Stika.

Thankfully, FEMA did help her family with their expenses. She said that after the initial phone call, there’s a way to upload documents online to apply for assistance. If your loved one is not familiar with doing something like that, then Stika said he or she might need some help.

Stika told us they will always remember their loved ones, especially their son who has fond memories. “He looks for rainbows and that's his indication that nanny and the papas are with us,” said Stika.

Your first step is to call FEMA at 844-684-6333 between 9am-9pm. There is no initial online application. The program is not income-based, but FEMA will ask you for that information as well as other important documentation. Click here for more details.

RELATED: Solon family issues warning after losing 3 parents to COVID-19

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