87-Year-Old Brooklyn Woman Declared Dead, Much to Her Surprise

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An 87-year-old Brooklyn woman received a letter recently informing her of her own demise. That might be enough to give an octogenarian a heart attack, but her problems are just beginning.

Selma Cohen, who lives in Midwood, got the letter on September 19 from the New York City Bureau of Fraud Investigation announcing that her Medicaid would be discontinued, what with her being deceased and all.

Her first thought? “You know, maybe it’s a joke or something.” After calling Medicaid, she learned that, in fact, the letter was the result of a computer error. But now she has to apply for a new state ID at the Social Security office to come back from her bureaucratic death. The process might take weeks — weeks during which Cohen says she won’t be able to afford doctors’ appointments or pay for her 14 different daily medications. She is doubtful as to whether she’ll even be able to afford food.

And I get food stamps, so I didn’t go food shopping the last few days,” she said. “I don’t know if they stopped already my food stamps. They’re not going to give me food stamps if I’m dead.”

She’s not alone among the living dead. Cohen’s name likely appears on the Death Master File (that’s really what it’s called), a national list of more than 86 million Americas run by the Social Security Administration. Once a person is included on the list, their SSN is retired, and shortly after they are erased from Medicare, IRS, and law-enforcement systems.

Between 2007 and 2010, more than 36,000 people were mistakenly added to the Death Master File, according to a 2011 audit by the Office of the Inspector General. The report concludes that in the file’s 35-year lifespan, more than 500,000 living, breathing Americans were declared dead.

It all comes down to “keystroke error,” explained cybercrime and identity-theft expert Steven Weisman in an interview with CBS: “Where it is so easy, just a slip of your little finger to kill someone, it’s very difficult to bring someone back to life, and it can be very frustrating.”

The error rate is very small (less than one percent), since out of the 2.8 million people who die each year, about 12,000 are mistakenly labeled as dead. But for those 12,000 people, getting resurrected is more than just a headache.

60 Minutes exposé shined a light on this topic in March when it concluded that once the Death Master File labels a person deceased, it’s nearly impossible to be declared fully alive again. The story profiled Judy Rivers, a victim of Death Master File error, who was arrested for identity theft when she tried to reclaim her life. Rivers lost access to her bank account and was forced to live out of her car for several months because of the error.

It took Rivers five years to be declared legally alive again — and she still has to carry around a letter confirming that she is, indeed, alive and well. Many victims featured on the show who died “prematurely” did not receive compensation for the months and years they were without benefits.

The city says they’re looking into it, according to ABC Eyewitness News, but the bureaucratic Lazarus process is rarely a swift one.

How am I going to survive? If I can’t get medicine, I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Cohen said.