CT towns, medical examiner compromise on handling of remains

Dr. James Gill, chief medical examiner

Office of the Chief Medical Examiner

Dr. James Gill, chief medical examiner

Connecticut’s cities and towns and the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner appear to have reached a temporary resolution of their disagreement over responsibility for unclaimed human remains.

The Farmington-based medical examiner’s office will handle storage and disposition of the bodies, but communities will take on responsibility for transporting them.

The compromise was reached at the urging of Attorney General George Jepsen’s office, which hinted this week that a legal opinion could leave both parties unsatisfied, and ultimately won’t resolve the budgetary strain each side is facing.

“We are continuing to review the legal question posed to us,” Jaclyn Falkowski, spokeswoman for Attorney General George Jepsen, said. “However, the OCME and the municipalities should not expect our response to fully or definitively resolve the policy and fiscal challenges facing them. Accordingly, we have urged them to continue discussions towards a mutually agreeable resolution.”

Dr. James Gill, the chief medical examiner, said Wednesday that he offered the compromise last week to the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities and to the Council of Small Towns.

Representatives of both municipal lobbying groups confirmed Wednesday the offer is a good, short-term solution.

But CCM spokesman Kevin Maloney and COST Executive Director Elizabeth Gara said their groups could renew their legal objections should new analysis come to light in the future.

And all parties said they probably would appeal to the legislature in the regular 2017 session, which begins in January, to better fund the OCME’s office so it could resume handling all functions related to unclaimed human remains.

At issue is an 11 percent cut to the OCME budget for the fiscal year that began July 1. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and the legislature imposed significant cuts on many state agencies to close a nearly $1 billion hole in the 2016-17 fiscal year without increasing taxes.

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.

And his office notified municipalities in May that it no longer could afford several services it had provided, despite not being obligated to do so by state law.

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

Given that, and the budget cuts, two changes are:

  • For unclaimed decedents at scenes that are not OCME cases, those remains no longer will be transported to the chief medical examiner’s office, and it is the responsibility of the town or city of death to handle these arrangements.
  • For unclaimed decedents that are OCME cases, the community where the death occurred must dispose of the remains after the office has completed its examination.

Municipalities are facing their own fiscal challenges in the new state budget, which reduced municipal aid by $162.4 million from the level pledged in the preliminary 2016-17 state budget.

Advocates for cities and towns asked Jepsen’s office to weigh in on the unclaimed remains issue on June 20, when they also released a legal opinion that asserts most communities can’t be forced to handle these arrangements.

CCM and COST officials also argued this was state government’s responsibility and added that most communities were not familiar with the requirements and protocols for storage, transportation and disposition of unclaimed human remains.

Gill said he recently notified municipalities that his office could — at least on a temporary basis — increase storage capacity to hold unclaimed remains. But it still would need cities and towns to handle transportation of the corpses.

Gill said there were 68 unclaimed decedents last fiscal year, and the cost of transportation is about $300 per body. Given that there are 169 cities and towns in Connecticut, communities — on average — would face one $300 charge every three years, or about $100 cost per year.

“To me this is a reasonable compromise,” Gill said, adding he understands that this issue is difficult for municipalities.

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