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Funding Cut Leaves Indigent Dead In Limbo

Jaegar Moore

Illinois has until recently paid for the cost of burial of its indigent dead. That changed on Good Friday, when the administration of Gov. Bruce Rauner terminated funding for the program.

The $9 million loss could push the cost of impoverished decedents’ final arrangements onto their families, funeral homes or even counties. Funeral directors say the cut could “cause many problems” for the state, which is struggling to fund operations through the end of the fiscal year on June 30.

The funeral and burial grant was among a number of program eliminations that came one week after the legislature approved appropriations to close the $1.6 billion budget gap for fiscal year 2015. The legislation seized funds from programs that still had money, and also called for 2.25 percent cuts across most of state government. The funeral and burial grant program was part of the Illinois Department of the Human Services’ (IDHS) trimming.

“The legislation passed by the General Assembly is not a complete solution, and the administration’s ability to manage the budget is restricted by the legislation as well the time it took to pass,” says Catherine Kelly, a spokeswoman for the governor. “Pat Quinn enacted a budget with a $1.6 billion hole that needs to be closed, which the governor is doing the without borrowing or increasing taxes.”

Through a grant from IDHS, people who receive certain medical benefits or those on cash programs like the Temporary Assistance for Needed Families and Aid for the Aged, Blind or Disabled could have their funeral and interment or cremation costs paid. The money went directly to the funeral home providing the service.

Some funeral homes, including Leak and Sons in Chicago, accept the $1,103 the state pays for funerals and $552 for burials as full payment for poor individuals’ final arrangements. That’s despite the average cost of funerals ranging from $4,800 to $8,000. Grieving families end up paying nothing.

“With payments being halted, many funeral homes are going to refuse to remove remains from nursing homes, hospitals and hospice facilities,” says Spencer Leak Jr., vice president of the Leak and Sons Funeral Homes. Leak says his establishment does funerals and burials for 300 to 400 indigent individuals every year.

In fiscal year 2014, the state paid $9.6 million for 8,649 funerals and burials, according to IDHS spokeswoman Jessica Michael. She says the state has not calculated the figures for the current fiscal year, and the program is not budgeted for FY16. Funeral homes will only be paid for claims filed up to January 15 — resulting in a loss for many of them.

While some legislators and advocacy organization leaders say they understand that budget cuts have to be made — even if they sting — they oppose slashing or eliminating funding to programs they believe the state’s most vulnerable residents depend on.

“This is something that we should really look at closely because allowing a person to have a dignified burial is important. It’s the last contribution that society could give to someone that’s obviously in need,” says Rep. LaShawn Ford, a Chicago Democrat. “I respect his (Rauner’s) will to try to rein in waste, fraud and abuse, but he’s got to listen to the most needy people in the state and have some compassion.”

The funeral and burial grant elimination could mean funeral homes turn families away that can’t pay for a loved one’s final expenses. Additionally, funeral directors could choose not to remove bodies from other facilities where indigent individuals have died, forcing county morgues to have to store — and ultimately pay to bury or cremate — corpses. That would still come at taxpayers’ expense, albeit from a different level of government.

In Cook County, the medical examiner’s office has already had to bury or cremate 48 people so far this year. In 2014, the county took care of the remains of 248 individuals. These were people who didn’t qualify for state, veterans or other agency death assistance, and whose families couldn’t afford to pay. With the elimination of the grant, this year’s number could increase to more than 500, according to the Cook County medical examiner’s office.

“Though the state decision to cut funding for the indigent burial program is disappointing, the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office had anticipated this possibility and has made arrangements for the dignified final disposition of these citizens at the expense of the county,” says Dr. Stephen Cina, chief Cook County medical examiner.

Bodies piled up at the Cook County morgue in 2012, partly because the state cut $13 million from the indigent funeral and burial program. Funding was restored after images of stacked corpses captured national headlines.

In Peoria County, Coroner Johnnah Ingersoll says if families don’t take care of final arrangements and disposition for poor decedents, then “as the coroner, I would assume jurisdiction over that death.” Peoria County residents would pick up the cost.

Sangamon County Coroner Cinda Edwards expects her office to have to help more families deal with poor relatives’ final arrangements. Terminating state funding for funerals and burials “is going to increase the amount of time spent — for us — with families in trying to find a solution for them,” Edwards says.

Rhonda Gillespie is in the Public Affairs Reporting graduate program at University of Illinois Springfield and covers state government and politics for Illinois Issues magazine. She was previously managing editor of the Chicago Defender newspaper and a reporter for other Chicago and national news, university and trade outlets. She can be reached at (217) 206-6524.
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