Rauner cut funeral funding for poor, so now who pays?
Suburban county officials say they'll largely be responsible for the cost of burying or cremating people whose families can't afford it after Gov. Bruce Rauner cut a state program that helped pay for those funerals.
Rauner cut the state reimbursement of $1,103 for burials or $554 for cremations of Illinois' poorest residents as part of an effort to shore up state finances.
Now, county coroners will have to reimburse funeral homes for the funerals, burials or cremations if families can't come up with the money, DuPage County Coroner Rich Jorgensen said.
Last year, funerals and burials or cremations for 261 indigent families in DuPage County cost the state $296,893. In Lake County, 203 claims totaled $235,894 for funerals and burials.
Matthew Symonds, funeral director at Symonds Funeral Homes, which has a location in Grayslake, said he's had three families that needed help paying funeral and burial costs since Rauner cut the program April 3. He said families have been asking relatives to contribute money toward the funerals.
"In some cases we can discount basic services, but coming up with that money is still difficult," Symonds said.
Symonds Funeral Home serves roughly 250 families a year, and in the past 75 to 100 of those families have needed financial assistance.
Without state funds, "the burden of the burial goes to the county and coroner's office," Jorgensen said. "I would expect this is going to become more of a problem both in costs and difficulty depending on the financial situations of county and coroners' offices," Jorgensen said. The governor's office says suspending funeral and burial services, among other programs, was done to help solve the state's budget problems. The Rauner administration says there was originally $9.5 million in the grant fund for funeral and burial services, and $6.9 million was left when the services were cut.
"Indigent funeral and burial services is one of many programs that were suspended because Pat Quinn enacted a phony budget with a $1.6 billion hole that needs to be closed," Rauner spokeswoman Catherine Kelly said.
State Rep. David Harris, an Arlington Heights Republican, asked about the program at a budget hearing Tuesday morning. "What do you do with a dead body? How do you handle that?"
Acting Illinois Department of Human Services Secretary Gregory Bassi said local governments have to come up with the money for burials or cremations in many states.
Without state money, there are a few other organizations that sometimes provide help, including the Lake County Veterans Assistance program and Catholic Charities, Symonds said, but "realistically there is no other source of funds available."
Tom Leetz, owner of Elgin's O'Connor-Leetz Funeral Home, said the decision to suspend the program could have legal ramifications. Leetz and other funeral directors said that while the services were suspended this month, the state's nonpayment could date all the way back to claims made in January.
"It seems to me they're asking for a class-action lawsuit," Leetz said. "If this is a complete suspension, I don't think you'd have to be an attorney to know the state of Illinois is in a breach of contract."
Leetz, also an attorney, said funeral directors are in an uncertain spot legally. Directors might still be obligated to help those who can't afford the services if they agree to do so before learning the families are unable to pay, Leetz says.
In the 2014 fiscal year, 8,649 people were buried or cremated through the state program.
While the program is suspended indefinitely, Illinois Department of Human Services spokeswoman Jessica Michael said funeral homes can still provide services for indigent families; they just won't be reimbursed for the cost.
"If it's someone from our local service area, we work with them the best we can whether it's providing services at no charge or doing the best with their limited funds," said John Glueckert Jr., president of Arlington Heights' Glueckert Funeral Homes.
Jorgensen said when the DuPage coroner's office provides funeral and burial services, the indigent residents are treated no differently than anyone else. He said his office will have to find a way to pay for the services and might get some help from the public.
"We've had burial plots donated to us from people in the past," Jorgensen said.