State handing towns responsibility for unclaimed human remains

State budget cuts mean Connecticut municipalities now must take responsibility for disposition and, in some cases, storage and transportation of unclaimed human remains, according to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

Dr. James Gill, the chief medical examiner, notified municipalities by email Thursday that his office no longer could afford several services it had provided, despite not being obligated to do so by state law.

“Due to budget cuts and storage facility limitations, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner must make certain changes that will affect your municipality,” Gill wrote, adding that the changes begin when the new fiscal year starts on July 1.

Though state law makes cities and towns responsible for final disposition of unclaimed decedents in their jurisdiction, this has not been enforced for years but rather handled by the state.

In his email Gill wrote that for unclaimed decedents at scenes that are not OCME cases, those remains “will no longer be transported to the OCME.

“It is the responsibility of the town or city of death to handle these arrangements,” he wrote.

For unclaimed decedents that are OCME cases, “the city/town where the death occurred shall be notified once the medical examiner has completed the examination at the OCME,” Gill wrote, adding that the municipality still has “the duty ‘to dispose’ of these remains” according to statute.

“We suggest that municipalities work with the local police to develop a plan to transport and store these remains as the police are usually at the scene of death,” Gill added, estimating this would involve fewer than 100 decedents annually statewide.

“The Connecticut Funeral Directors Association may be able to provide you with a list of funeral homes willing to assist with transportation and storage,” Gill wrote. “There are funeral ‘trade services’ that already have contracts with the state to provide transportation services.”

The $19.76 billion budget legislators and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration crafted for the new fiscal year relies heavily on spending cuts to close a projected deficit of nearly $1 billion without raising taxes. Funding for Gill’s office was reduced by about 11 percent.

Gill had warned legislators during a budget hearing in mid-March that his office’s caseload had grown by about 50 percent in recent years and that any additional cuts probably would result in fewer services delivered.

Gill could not be reached for comment late Thursday afternoon.

Betsy Gara, executive director of the Connecticut Council of Small Towns, said she had heard from many municipal officials. “Across the board they are very concerned,” she said. “Many small towns are not familiar with the requirements and protocols” for storage, transportation and disposition of unclaimed human remains.

Both Gara and Joe DeLong, executive director of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, said it is state government’s responsibility to work with communities to ensure this matter is handled properly.

“We believe we have to be partners in governing,” DeLong said. “You just can’t pass this issue down from the state to cities and towns” with an email.

The memo sparked criticism from Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven. The Republican minorities in the Senate and House both had argued some of the worst service cuts in the budget could have been avoided had the governor and Democratic legislators cut state employee benefit costs and imposed tighter limits on overtime. But most of those savings would have been possible only if state employee unions agreed to contract concessions, something union leaders said workers would not do after providing givebacks in 2009 and 2011.

“How much more inhumane can you get?” Fasano said. “Democrats have cut the Chief Medical Examiner’s office to the point where they can no longer do their job, and it will now be up to individual municipalities to process human remains. This is another burden on our towns that they are not equipped to handle. This is an issue of humanity, of public health, and of basic respect for the people of this state.”

Democratic legislative leaders have said there are many difficult spending cuts in the budget, but making these tough choices not only enabled the state to avoid tax hikes, but also helped drive a projected $2.2 billion hole in 2017-18 state finances down to $1.3 billion.

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