Handling of unclaimed bodies is the latest issue brought on by state budget cuts

Whether the responsibility for unclaimed bodies falls to the state or to towns and cities is the latest debate brought on by state budget cuts.

But officials indicated this week that a compromise could be near.

Chief Medical Examiner Dr. James Gill had sent an email last month to municipalities saying that, beginning July 1, they would have additional responsibilities in handling arrangements for unclaimed bodies, as the department faces budget cuts and space constraints.

After a flurry of emails and concern among local officials, the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities and the Council of Small Towns said this week that they are working toward a solution.

In an email to the Council of Small Towns, Connecticut Conference of Municipalities and other parties last Friday, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner offered a compromise: The department would continue to store dead bodies that have not been claimed by next of kin, reversing the original proposal that the towns store the bodies.

But the towns are asked to cover the transportation costs for unclaimed bodies in cases that are not under investigation by the medical examiner.

Gill and the two councils said they are awaiting an opinion from the state Attorney General's Office on who is responsible for the unclaimed bodies under state law.

Meanwhile, the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments is drafting a letter on behalf of its Legislative Committee to the medical examiner in response to his May email.

The regional council said last week that state cuts "trickle down" to local cities and towns, which have no space to store the bodies. 

The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner has been transporting and storing bodies by practice, but it's not written into law, Gill said in a phone interview. 

The department is under strain from increased costs for transportation and toxicology testing and is facing budget cuts, he said.

The number of autopsy reports has increased by more than 50 percent over the last two years, largely due to more drug overdose deaths.

That has also created a space issue.

But Gill said the department now is planning to expand its storage space.

He recently offered to continue to store the bodies, if the towns would cover the transportation costs for the roughly 70 cases per year across the state in which no one steps forward to claim the body of a deceased person and the death is not under investigation.

For example, a body may be unclaimed if a person dies at home of natural causes but has no family.

In some cases, family members may later come forward.

Gill estimated it would cost each municipality, on average, about $100 per year to cover the transportation costs.

The department would continue to cover the transportation and storage for cases it is investigating, he said.

That includes instances of sudden, suspicious or violent deaths.

Connecticut Conference of Municipalities Executive Director Joe DeLong said attorneys are reviewing Gill's proposal.

The Council of Small Towns and Connecticut Conference of Municipalities met with the medical examiner and shared the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities' legal opinion that the state is responsible for unclaimed bodies.

DeLong said the chief medical examiner was put in an untenable situation with budget cuts but has been amenable to finding a solution.

"Nothing is finalized, but I think his last proposal was very much done in good faith, and I think we're making good progress," DeLong said.

Betsy Gara, the executive director for the Council of Small Towns, said that council is awaiting the opinion from the attorney general and a review by attorneys. 

She said it's important to receive clarification on the state law, so towns and cities don't end up having to pay for the storage of unclaimed bodies if there are additional budget cuts in the future.

"We're concerned that the medical examiner's office is interpreting the law very broadly, and not only would towns be responsible for transporting the unclaimed remains, we would also be on the hook for disposing and storing the remains, which could be very costly," Gara said.

Jaclyn Falkowski, the communications director for the Attorney General's Office, said the attorney general had last week received an opinion request on the issue from House Minority Leader Themis Klarides. 

Falkowski declined to comment further because of the pending review.

Salem First Selectman Kevin Lyden said he must have received about 150 emails on the subject.

He said municipalities already are suffering under cuts to their budgets, and cuts to state agencies "trickle down" to municipalities.

Sprague First Selectman Cathy Osten, also a state senator, said at last week's Council of Governments meeting that the medical examiner's office needs to act like municipalities and do more with less.

"If there's less money, does your planning department come to you and say 'I can't do planning any longer,' or does your public works crew say 'I can’t plow the roads any longer'?" she asked. "You've all made cuts and still have gotten the job done."

Griswold First Selectman Kevin Skulczyck, in a phone interview, called the May email, which came a month and a half before the start of the fiscal year, "unacceptable."

He said municipalities would have no place to store the bodies.

Even if the municipalities have to pay only for transportation, and not storage, he said, it still would be costly and an unfunded mandate.

He pointed out that municipalities budget by line item in advance.

"That being said, with the unpredictability of how many incidents, this could be a burden to any of our budgets," he said.

k.drelich@theday.com

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