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Commissioners review indigent burial policies
Apr 4, 2013 - By Eric Blom, Staff Writer
State statute requires counties to pay the funeral costs of people who cannot provide for themselves.
The Fremont County Commission is looking to tighten up its indigent burial policy. County board members expressed concern about the cost of burying people who cannot provide for themselves.
Wyoming statue holds county commissions responsible for the burial costs of indigent people not receiving certain public benefits.
"It went from one every few years to a few every year," commissioner Keja Whiteman said at the county board meeting March 19. "I think something's broken in this system."
Fremont County Deputy Attorney Jodi Darrough said county Coroner Ed McAuslan has been the one to determine if people received benefits and qualified for a state-funded burial.
Wyoming's Department of Family Services is responsible for the burial or cremation of people receiving assistance under the Personal Opportunities with Employment Responsibilities program, Supplemental Security Income or Medicaid.
If they did not qualify and were in need, a local funeral home would cremate the remains and Fremont County would pay the bill. The county has been paying $1,800 for each cremation.
The coroner recently told the commission he would no longer determine indigence or if a deceased individual received public benefits.
At the March 19 meeting, commissioners decided to have their attorney draft a policy to place more responsibility on funeral homes. At the April 2 meeting, they met with funeral directors, and deputy county attorney Jodi Darrough presented the policy she drafted.
The drafted policy states, "The funeral home shall be responsible for discovering whether the decedent was indigent at the time of death, and whether the decedent was a veteran or a recipient of the public benefits named above."
The benefits are the POWER program, SSI and Medicaid. If a deceased person served in the armed forces, the county will provide for burial in a veteran's cemetery.
If a person is not a veteran and did not receive public benefits, the draft policy stated the cost of the cremation or burial will be $1,800 or less, but if a relative or friend claims the body, they are responsible for the cost.
Wyoming statute also says any property found with the body can be used to pay the cost of the funeral, the draft policy stated.
If the funeral home wants the county to pay the cost of burial, the business is to submit an affidavit saying it found a person to be indigent, not a veteran, not on public benefits and without property to pay for cremation or burial, and nobody claimed the body.
"Anyone can walk in and say 'I don't have any money,'" chairman Doug Thompson said. "The concern is we want some kind of documentation, some affidavit that we don't have any money and there are no assets, any way to cover it."
Hudson's Funeral Home director Dalton Sanders said his staff is too busy doing their work of arranging and performing funerals with families to investigate indigent burials.
"We don't want this responsibility dumped in our lap," he said. "It has not been us, and I'd prefer it's not us."
Commissioner Keja Whiteman said she thought it should be the funeral homes' responsibility.
"If it was any other business -- if you don't pay your bill, there's a legal process to make sure it's paid," she said. "Ideally from my perspective, if you guys could file some kind of probate claim, and then (if that was unsuccessful the county would pay for it)."
A probate claim is a legal claim of a creditor on a deceased person's estate.
Sanders said resorting to the legal process would cause a cash flow problem for his business.
"I can't have 6, 7, 8 cases a year tied up in probate," he said.
Sanders also questioned if the county had a definition of indigence, which funeral homes would need to investigate the status of deceased people.
Darrough said the county does not have such a definition.
The commission decided to gather more information and take up the issue again.
"The probate time frame is not conducive to good business, and we need a definition of indigency or criteria," Thompson said. "I believe the commission believes the funeral home needs to have a part of this process."