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Comptroller Wants More Publicity For State Funds For Funerals

File Photo by Brian Mackey/NPR Illinois

An Illinois county coroner's practice of holding remains and death certificates of the indigent until their families can pay for burial is "disgusting behavior," state Comptroller Susana Mendoza said Tuesday.

The Democratic comptroller reacted to an Associated Press report about Adams County Coroner James Keller's practice and called for a ramped-up campaign to alert local officials that state-funded burial is again available. The AP report found Keller demanded $1,000 from family members of the indigent before he would release the remains and deaths certificates.

Mendoza wants Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner's administration to "do more" to publicize the $1,655 available for the funeral, cremation and burial of those who die poor.

"Holding the remains of people's loved ones for ransom is unthinkable," Mendoza said in a statement. "Everyone deserves a respectful burial. Being poor is not a crime."

State money to bury the indigent was completely shut off in 2016 because of a two-year budget stalemate, but even with funding restored in late 2016, claims for the program fell dramatically. Several officials and funeral directors told the AP they were unaware funding had been restored.

Mendoza called for publicity "so the costs aren't pushed onto local taxpayers and businesses, and families aren't faced with added stress in a time of mourning."

Even before the budget crisis, Illinois was months behind on paying bills and funding had dried up in 2010, as well.

Keller, a Republican, told the AP he was doing his best to safeguard taxpayers while trying to be "supportive of families with the hand that we're dealt with by the state."

The Department of Human Services, which processes the claims, posted a letter online in September 2017 to notify funeral homes that funding was available and extended the deadline for filing. Spokeswoman Meghan Powers said Tuesday that another letter was sent to funeral homes in January to update them that the state is covering indigent burial costs.

DHS noted that in the 2015 fiscal year, the agency processed 5,652 burial claims. After money was restored in 2017, there were only 1,649 claims, and in the current budget year that ends June 30, there have been 1,084 — although Powers said last week the agency was still assessing 1,072 for approval or denial.

Of the $9.3 million for funerals and burials in the current budget, Mendoza said only $1.5 million has been spent.

Mendoza is responsible for paying overdue state bills totaling $6.9 billion, a pile that predates the budget crisis but was exacerbated by it. She said her office is prioritizing burial-claim payments. They're typically paid within days of receipt from DHS. She nudged DHS to process outstanding applications quickly to "allow us to bring relief to the funeral homes that have been shouldering the cost of the state's financial dysfunction."