Apr. 17—Scottdale funeral director Frank Kapr says interest is soaring in a new federal program benefiting families who lost a loved one to covid-19 in 2020.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency launched a phone hotline this week offering up to $9,000 per family for certain paid expenses.
"You would be crazy not to apply if you lost a loved one to covid-19," said the owner of Frank Kapr Funeral Home on West Pittsburgh Street.
Kapr also is president of the Pennsylvania Funeral Directors Association, which has more than 1,100 members statewide.
"We've been sending out information to our members on how they can assist families they've served as soon as we receive it from FEMA. Applicants have to have formal documentation to apply," he said.
In one recent month, Kapr said his funeral home provided funerals for about 12 people who died of covid-19 symptoms.
According to FEMA, two measures recently approved by Congress allocated billions of dollars in funding for funeral benefits. The first one was signed by former President Trump in December. The most recent one was part of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan that President Biden signed in March.
The legislation provides funds for funeral services in an attempt to defray the financial burden on families who may already be struggling because of the economic downturn caused by the pandemic.
New Alexandria funeral director P. David Newhouse, also a board member with the state association, said he has not had any inquires to date from families, but he anticipates interest in the assistance program will grow as people learn about it.
"We've already received some information from the Pennsylvania Funeral Directors Association on how families can apply and how we can assist. Families have to submit the applications on their own, but funeral homes will assist them providing documentation to submit their applications," Newhouse said.
This week, FEMA launched a national hotline at 844-684-6333 for families to apply. The hotline is open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday.
A surge of calls when the hotline opened Monday resulted in a lot of busy signals, FEMA admits. It posted a notice on its website about potential call delays.
"We are experiencing high call volume on the Funeral Assistance phone line, which is causing some technical issues. Please try again later if you get a busy signal or your call doesn't connect," the message states.
Kathleen K. Ryan, executive director and counsel of the Harrisburg-based funeral directors association, anticipates thousands of Pennsylvania families ultimately will apply for the benefit. According to the state health department, more than 25,000 Pennsylvanians have died from covid-19, including more than 1,800 in Allegheny County and 720 in Westmoreland.
"There's no deadline on the program," Ryan said.
The National Funeral Directors Association reported in December 2019 that the average cost of a funeral was $9,135, up from $8,508 in 2014.
Kapr noted families can receive up to $9,000 per individual, but families who have had more than one loved one who died from covid-19 symptoms could be eligible for reimbursement of up to $35,500 under FEMA guidelines.
William W. Rusiewicz Jr., whose family operates funeral homes in Arnold and Lower Burrell, also anticipates its staff will be assisting many area families it has served in the region.
"We will be providing information to families. All applications to FEMA have to made by the families," he noted.
Frank Perman, owner of Perman Funeral Home in Shaler, said his funeral home is reaching out to families it has served.
"We are being proactive about the FEMA funeral assistance by having written a letter to all of the families who may be eligible for this program to inform them of this possible benefit," Perman said.
Kapr said the state association sent a sample letter to member funeral directors they can send to families offering to assist them with acquiring the necessary documents.
As for the reported wait times for the FEMA hotline, Kapr said he was at a meeting in Harrisburg this week with another funeral director from the Philadelphia area.
"We both had people who have already applied, and they both eventually got through. It took 3 to 6 hours, though," he said.
To qualify, the death must have occurred in the U.S. or its territories, and funeral expenses must have been incurred after Jan. 20, 2020, according to FEMA. The death certificate must indicate the death was attributed to or likely caused by covid-19 or coronavirus-like symptoms.
Covered expenses include the transfer of remains, burial plot, casket, clergy services, cremation and headstone, among other costs. But the aid will be reduced if the applicant received benefits from burial or funeral insurance or financial assistance from other sources.
More information is available at fema.gov/disasters/coronavirus/economic/funeral-assistance.
Paul Peirce is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Paul at 724-850-2860, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .