Alive But Ruled Dead By Social Security 'Data Entry Error' : Shots - Health News The government keeps track of who is alive and who is dead. But there can be errors. And when you're mistakenly ruled dead, it can be remarkably tough to convince people you're still among the living.

Social Security Data Errors Can Turn People Into The Living Dead

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The U.S. government keeps track of who is alive and who is not. Still, every month, it mislabels hundreds of people as deceased when they are, in fact, very much alive. As NPR's Rae Ellen Bichell reports, should that happen to you, it can be tough to convince people who aren't your near and dear that you're still among the living.

RAE ELLEN BICHELL, BYLINE: A few months ago, Dr. Thomas Lee logged into his patients' electronic medical records and something unexpected popped up.

THOMAS LEE: A post-mortem notice.

BICHELL: It said that one of his patients, a man in his 80s, had died. Lee is a primary care doctor at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

LEE: I was horrified because I just felt really guilty that I had not pushed harder to get him in sooner.

BICHELL: He wanted to know what had happened, but he couldn't find anything in the medical records, so Lee decided to call the man's house to find out and to offer condolences.

LEE: So I called, and to my shock, he answered.

BICHELL: It was the patient, a retired professor.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: As he stammered, I told him I assume you're calling about my death.

LEE: It gave me goosebumps, and I said, yeah, I guess I am. And then explained to me what had happened.

BICHELL: According to the Social Security Administration, the professor had died in December. That information had quickly passed to banks, insurance companies, hospitals. And soon enough, he was essentially locked out of his life. The ATM rejected his card. His doctor's appointments evaporated. He even got a letter from Social Security informing his relatives that his monthly payments would end.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It was a major nuisance, let's put it that way.

BICHELL: The professor spent weeks on the phone trying to correct the mishap, and he learned that all of his information, including his Social Security number, full name and date of birth, had become public in a national database called the Death Master File. That's why we're not using the professor's name because he's now low-hanging fruit for identity thieves. And as his doctor, Thomas Lee, wrote this week in The New England Journal of Medicine, what happened to the professor is not that uncommon.

LEE: And this I think is where I made the transition from thinking about this as something funny to something important.

BICHELL: There's even an FAQ about it on the Social Security Administration's website. Rona Lawson has researched how often these mistakes happen. She works at the Social Security Administration. In 2011, she says, about a thousand people a month were incorrectly marked dead.

RONA LAWSON: More recent data shows the number is around 500 per month, so it's going down. But if you're one of those people, it can have a major impact on you.

BICHELL: In 2013, based on recommendations by Lawson and her colleagues, Congress passed legislation to keep personal information from becoming public until three years after death. The change will kick in this November.

LAWSON: So that's more time to get it right before it gets into the public domain and starts spreading to all the different websites and so forth.

BICHELL: But, she says, the information would still go to authorized users, like insurance companies and banks. The professor was lucky. He was able to borrow money from friends and pay cash for his medications, and eventually, he even found some humor in the situation.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It's also somewhat amusing to know that you really are alive when everybody thinks you're dead.

BICHELL: But for others who rely on monthly retirement payments, losing your life, if only on paper, can make it hard to appreciate dark humor. Rae Ellen Bichell, NPR News

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