Government Demands Poor Donate Bodies to Medical School

(NICHOLAS BERGIN)   The bodies of poor and indigent people for whom Des Moines County would be required to pick up the bill for burial or cremation will soon be offered up to medical schools to use for educational purposes before being laid to rest at public expense.

During a recent review of state law while helping update the county’s general assistance manual, Senior Assistant County Attorney Amy Beavers turned up an old law, previously unenforced by the county, requiring bodies being buried with taxpayers’ dollars must be offered for use by medical science. Once the college or medical school has finished with the body, it will be properly buried or cremated.

The only exceptions are for veterans, and if the decedent had a written declaration of what should happen with the body. The funerals of poor and needy veterans are handled through the county’s Veteran Affairs Office, not through general assistance.

Beavers informed the Des Moines County Board of Supervisors of the law last week during a workshop session.

“We have to start complying with Iowa law on this,” Supervisor Dan Cahill said upon hearing of the state code.

Supervisors asked implementation of the new rule be postponed until after the board meets with area funeral directors. Officials expect the meeting to take place Tuesday during a workshop following the board’s regular 9 a.m. meeting at the Des Moines County Courthouse.

Funeral homes must inform the county when an indigent funeral is required. County employees, who approve burials at public expense, will now be required to inform the Iowa Department of Public Health of a body’s availability within 48 hours. The Iowa Department of Public Health is supposed to maintain a list of medical schools the bodies can be offered to.

Failure to notify the Iowa Department of Public Health could result in a simple misdemeanor charge, and the willful withholding of information by a funeral home could result in charges of an aggravated misdemeanor, Beavers said.

Bodies must be held at either a funeral home or medical facility for 30 days in case a family member chooses to claim the deceased and pay for the funeral. If a family member claims the body and pays for the burial or cremation, submission to a medical facility will not be required.

Family members are legally required to pay for funerals. But if the decedent and family members meet income guidelines, the county pays $1,900 for the burial of an adult and $950 for that of a child.

In 2007, the county received 51 requests to fund burials and granted 22. Applications fell to 23 in 2008, and 16 were approved. In 2009, applications remained steady at 23, but only nine were approved. And as of Wednesday, 15 applications have been submitted so far this year with nine approved, said county General Assistance Coordinator Alana Capps.

The decrease in applications and approvals is due in part to efforts by county employees to verify applications and ensure no assets or family members exist who would be legally required to pay for the service, county officials said.

Publicly funded burials have long been subject to abuse, Cahill said.

“This is an area that has been abused over the years by citizens and funeral homes in getting counties to pay towards funerals,” Cahill said. “What they did in the past is, they would take the ($1,900) from the county for the funeral and then they would bill the family the difference. And that is not right.”

County policy states funds paid for indigent burials will pay for services in full and families cannot be billed nor pay to have additional services, with the exception of paying for copies of death certificates, date of death engraving, cost of a minister to perform a memorial or transportation of a body greater than 50 miles.

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