Barbara Murphy isn't dead. But the federal government thinks she has been deceased for two years. 64-year-old Murphy, from Roy, Utah, says she has tried to see the humour in the situation that began two weeks ago. It keeps her from worrying about the potentially devastating consequences. "It's the only thing carrying me through this," Murphy says of her sense of humour. "I don't know what else to do but laugh." Though Murphy is alive and well, a death certificate has been connected to her, leading the Social Security Administration to believe she died in July 2014. Now, the federal government has been attempting to take back two years' worth of Social Security payments and to recoup any Medicare or Medicaid dollars put toward Murphy's treatment during that time. Efforts to correct the error had been fruitless, attempts to pull from Murphy's fixed income continued, pleas to Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, have gone unanswered, and now she has been left with no idea what to do next. "We're just definitely going downhill faster than heck," she said, echoing her husband's concerns about paying their bills.
Whatever the cause, Murphy believes bureaucratic lack of communication has perpetuated the problem. Her fear now is that it won't be resolved before the next time her bills are due, she fills a prescription or needs to see a doctor.
Murphy was out for a Friday night dinner with a granddaughter on Aug. 12 when the waitress first informed her that her card had been declined. Murphy's husband was able to pay for the meal, but she remained perplexed.
Their granddaughter, who works for a bank, called to ask about her grandmother's account and was told it had been frozen after the Social Security Administration issued notice of her death.
After proving to the bank she was alive and resurrecting her account on Monday morning, Murphy got a call from the bank manager urging her to contact the Social Security Administration and warning, "This could be very serious."
At the agency's office in Ogden the next day, Murphy couldn't even request a wait ticket from the automated system because her social security number registered as invalid. After being assigned a spot in line and waiting for her turn, Murphy got to make her case.
"I said, 'Now would you like to take my pulse and see that I'm alive? Because you're showing me dead.' And I said, 'You've caused me heartache,'" Murphy recalls with a chuckle.
After going through a series of questions and meeting with a supervisor, Murphy signed a letter saying she was contesting being listed as deceased, was told her status would be returned to active and was promised a letter updating her on her case's progress.
"It was a joke," Murphy said. "Since that time, every facility I have ever visited, every doctor's office I have ever visited, has received requests for every payment they have received be refunded to Social Security."
Then, her bank was contacted again by the Social Security Administration asking that two years' worth of Social Security payments be pulled from the account Murphy shares with her husband. So far, Murphy says the bank, which asked not to be identified, has taken fantastic measures to help her.
"The only protection I've had is my wonderful bank, because they have worked so hard and diligently to help me," Murphy said. She went on to add, "The young man at the bank, I just can't applaud him enough. Every time something comes up, he'll pick the phone up and call me."
Murphy has also been visiting the health care offices that have treated her over the past two years, delivering a letter she drafted explaining the error and urging in capital letters: "DO NOT PAY THEM."
Murphy hopes to eventually discover exactly how she was declared dead, she hopes this isn't an act of fraud, and will insist that the responsible party face some kind of consequence for the stress this has caused her and her husband.
"Is it ever going to get corrected so that I can have a level life again and know where I stand?" she asked.
In the meantime, Murphy said she will continue to laugh at the situation when she can.
Cindy Malone, a regional spokeswoman for the Social Security Administration, said that privacy laws prevent the agency from releasing information about Murphy's case, including details about what is done to correct her record.
"We may never know how it happened. We focus on fixing the issue," Malone said. "We post about 2.8 million new reports of death each year from many sources, including family members, funeral homes, financial institutions, postal authorities, states and other federal agencies, and around one-third of 1 percent are subsequently corrected."
Malone also provided a phone number for Murphy to call for assistance.