Cuts force funeral homes to stop offering public aid funerals
Due to budget cuts, the state has stopped paying for funerals for the poor, and funeral homes have stopped offering public aid funerals.
As a result, families and counties will take on more of the costs to bury or cremate a loved one.
Until recently the Illinois Department of Human Services paid funeral and burial expenses for people who were enrolled in public aid programs such as KidCare Assist or Family Assist. The deceased's next-of-kin or a funeral home could claim the amount, up to about $1,600.
Jim Yost, owner of Owens Funeral Home in Champaign, said his business has provided public aid funerals for decades and he considers it a public service. But he is owed several thousand dollars from the state for services, and the amount the state pays does not cover the actual costs of a funeral.
"It's one thing to do a funeral for that price, but to have to wait all that time? It's not helping cash flow," he said. "They have made some efforts in catching up. I've received about a dozen checks (from the state) in the last six weeks," he added.
For the current fiscal year ending June 30, 2012, the state's funeral program received $1.9 million in funding, compared with $12.6 million for the previous fiscal year.
"The General Assembly did not provide adequate funding to run the program for a full year," said Januari Smith Trader, spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Human Services.
About $12.6 million covers about 12,000 funerals and burials. With $1.9 million for this year, the state had enough to cover funerals for people who died during the first six weeks of the fiscal year. The maximum the state pays is $1,103 for a funeral and $552 for a burial.
"The money didn't go very far," Smith Trader said.
Funeral homes were notified in August about the budget situation. But long before that, many stopped holding public aid funerals because the amount the state paid did not cover costs and because payments arrived late, in many cases six months late, according to funeral directors.
"This is a huge problem. Most funeral homes have gotten to the point of requiring down payments that a lot of people don't have," Leslie Lux of Lux Memorial Chapel in Rantoul.
She said they don't want to pressure people to have a big funeral, but "I at least need to have my costs covered."
She's seen many people turn to friends and family members and churches to come up with the money for a funeral.
If a person remains unclaimed from the hospital, for example, and is very poor, the county coroner's office is called to pick up the body from the hospital.
"If they are truly indigent, ultimately it is up to the county to do something with the individual," Champaign County Coroner Duane Northrup said.
If the person is a veteran, the coroner's office can contact the Department of Veterans Affairs and seek help in picking up the tab.
If the person is not a veteran, cannot receive public aid funeral assistance and there are no personal possessions the county can seize to cover costs, "we can bury them at the county's expense, which is pretty pricey (a grave opening and closing is around $875 not including the casket or if they're required to have a vault)," Northrup said.
The county can also have the body cremated. And it can be donated to science, which does not cost anything other than transportation to the Anatomical Gift Association in Chicago, according to Northrup.
The Champaign coroner's office used to handle about one to two indigent cases a year, now it's closer to six to nine a year, he said.
The office also has received a lot more calls from people requesting information and looking for assistance, he said.
"It's tough. We definitely have seen an increase since the economy started to falter," Northrup said.