Friday, February 15, 2008

INSURANCE: Fort Worth death that wasn't puts us all on notice

By Gina Best - Special to the Star-Telegram - Feb. 12, 2008
Longtime Fort Worth resident Mary G. Anderson recently had a near-death experience of the most perplexing kind.

Her unusual story began Nov. 18 when an obituary for Mary Ann Anderson, an 83-year-old Alvord homemaker, was published in the Star-Telegram. Her survivors include a daughter and grandchildren.

The obituary caught the eye of a staff member at the Employees' Retirement Fund of Fort Worth who apparently scans the obituary columns daily looking for pension recipients who have died. The employee inexplicably decided that the Alvord woman was in fact Mary G. Anderson, also 83, who receives a portion of her late husband's pension. Her husband, Guy Anderson, who died in 2004, worked for the city of Fort Worth for more than 30 years.

The pension fund employee didn't call the funeral home or survivors to confirm. She also didn't call Anderson's residence or send a certified letter. Instead, based solely on the obituary, the employee canceled the December pension check that had been automatically deposited into Mary G. Anderson's bank account. And the fund didn't remit her January pension deposit.

The two Marys lived in different cities and had different middle names and different birthdays.

Mary G. Anderson has lived and worked in Fort Worth her entire life, and her address must be on file with the retirement fund. Her middle name is Guthrie, her maiden name. And her birthday is in August; Mary Ann Anderson's was in March.

That mistake triggered another problem. When the pension fund canceled its deposit, the bank returned a December Social Security check that was supposed to be automatically deposited into Anderson's account.

Meanwhile, Anderson was unaware that anything was amiss until Jan. 11, when the Social Security Administration contacted her to ask about the returned check. "I had to prove to them that I am indeed alive," she said.

Her Social Security check was redeposited immediately.

She then contacted her bank, discovered the problem with her pension checks and realized that she hadn't received a statement from the retirement fund.

She called the fund, where a pension fund employee explained that her obituary had been printed in the newspaper.

Anderson asked why the pension fund didn't call or write to verify her death; the employee told her that "they did not have the staff to make telephone calls to people," Anderson said. The employee also said -- wrongly -- that the Alvord woman had the same birth date and Social Security number.

"I will never understand why they tried to tag me as deceased," she said. "They ought to have a better way to research it before they automatically declare somebody dead."

Anderson, who worked in the title business for more than 30 years, said she knows how important facts and figures are. "When I'd see something, you know, a red flag, I was never above making a telephone call."

A watchdog in her own right, Anderson had the situation resolved by late January, and because she had enough savings, she avoided an overdraft. She contacted The Watchdog because she doesn't want anyone else who receives a pension from the Fort Worth fund to face the same situation.

Wanda Valentine, deputy director of benefits and administration at the pension fund, said she has "apologized profusely" to Anderson. She also said her office is not understaffed.

Employees do scan obituaries to look for people who may have worked for the city and are of retirement age. They then key those names into the fund's database to see whether there is a match with a recipient. If it isn't clear, employees are supposed to take additional measures.

"The goal is to try to reach the retiree or some family member," Valentine said. If they can't talk to someone, employees are supposed to send a certified letter to the recipient's residence.

"This one just kind of fell through the cracks. ... We can't make an excuse for that," Valentine said.

The bank apparently handled the matter of Anderson's supposed death as it should.

It appears that when the pension fund reported Anderson as deceased to the clearinghouse that processes direct deposits, the clearinghouse notified the bank.

If a bank learns of the death of a recipient, it must return federal payments such as a Social Security deposit, said Tom Clark, a public affairs specialist for the Social Security Administration office in Fort Worth.

But Social Security takes steps to confirm a death. That also enables the administration to see whether someone else is eligible for the benefits of the deceased.

And so Mary G. Anderson was returned to the living. Mistakes such as the one she experienced can happen. But take comfort in this: There are everyday Watchdogs who walk among us, keeping an eye out for others. Thanks for sharing your story, Mary.

Need a watchdog?

Requests should be made in writing to watchdog@star- or mailed to P.O. Box 1870, Fort Worth, TX 76101.

If you have a tip about an investigative story, contact the Star-Telegram investigative team at 817-390-7027.

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