EAST MEADOW, Nassau County (WABC) -- For families grieving loved ones who died of COVID, it's been a financial lifeline. FEMA will reimburse up to $9,000 in funeral expenses for COVID victims.
But what happens when you qualify and still don't receive your money? You call Nina Pineda and 7 On Your Side.
FEMA says it's already reimbursed more than $2.8 billion in funeral expenses for COVID victims.
But, one Long Island family says it's gotten frustration instead of funds.
"The thought of communicating with them gave me such a pit in my stomach I wanted to give up," said Michele Hughes, sister of COVID victim.
Grieving and frustrated, Hughes is referring to FEMA, the federal agency owes her family $9,000 reimbursement to cover the funeral for her younger brother Stephen Nashchen who died from COVID two years ago.
"He got COVID in the hospital and he passed away within a week," said Louise Nashchen, Stephen's mother.
It was a sudden loss. Born with Spina Bifida, Stephen was having neurosurgery to relieve pressure on his back, his hospital roommate came in with Coronavirus and within days it spread.
"He had to be intubated, his levels were going down, he was brought to the ICU," Hughes said.
But it was too late, Stephen died days later. But, his sister only learned last year FEMA would pay for burial costs when COVID is the cause of death.
"This was an expense I incurred unexpectedly. You don't think you're going to have to pay for your 44-year-old brother's funeral. This is something that would ease that burden," she said.
Last fall, they applied and qualified for the program.
"The whole funeral was $12,000," Hughes said.
"And what does FEMA owe you?" Pineda asked.
"$9,000," she said.
But their claim was denied because the death certificate didn't list COVID as the cause.
"New York is the only state of all 50 that will not put a cause of death on the report," Hughes said.
She took the extra step getting a "Confidential Medical Report" from the department of health, listing COVID as her brother's cause of death.
"Here's the letter from the doctor," Hughes said.
She uploaded it to the FEMA portal, but then got rejected again for a different reason, since her mom paid for a small portion of her son's memorial.
"My mother paid $900 in cash because she wanted to pay for the plaque herself," Hughes said.
"So, they're holding up $9,000 for the $900," Pineda said.
"Yes," Hughes said.
She then had to upload canceled checks and her bank statement to prove she paid for the funeral.
"They keep rejecting it," she said.
They wanted to give up, but knew they could not.
"Stephen was so full of life. It's hard to think of sitting around doing nothing. That's not who he is or what he would want," she said.
Wheelchair bound for most of his life, Stephen had fought tirelessly for ADA rights.
Louise also lost her husband three months before her son.
He died from 9/11 related cancer, after helping evacuate survivors in Lower Manhattan. She gave her daughter some advice.
"She said, 'Call 7 On Your Side, they help everyone. They're wonderful, they can help you with this,'" Hughes said.
7 On Your Side contacted FEMA who said families, whose loved one died of COVID before May 11, 2023 can still apply for assistance for more than two years, until September 2025.
In this case, it "reexamined the claim" and made a new "determination."
"We got great news. I got the money in one day. What took me 10 months took you guys one day," Hughes said.
$9,000 was approved and in her account, giving her closure finally.
"I'm so glad I called 7 On Your Side, I never in a million years thought this would happen," Louise said. "It would have never happened without you guys, thank you so much."
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