The state is no longer covering funeral expenses for Illinois’ poorest residents, a move a South Side funeral director fears will force struggling families to cremate remains.
“This could possibly change the culture of the African-American funeral industry,” said Spencer Leak, who runs Leak and Sons Funeral Home, which has been in business since 1933.
Leak suspects there will be a rise in the number of families who rent a casket for funeral services and then cremate the body.
Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration announced it will stop paying claims submitted after Jan. 15, which puts Leak in a bind because he’s trying to recoup about $100,000 in indigent funeral expenses he incurred after the cutoff date.
“We did services in January, February and March thinking we were going to get paid, and then we received word about these cuts in mid-March,” Leak said.
Veronica Vera, a spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Human Services, said funeral directors received notification of the cut in funding on April 3.
Charles Childs, funeral director at A.A. Rayner and Sons on the South Side, asked who the poor should turn to now for help. He said the cuts will affect people throughout the state but not politicians.
“If the governor lost his mother or grandmother and couldn’t pay for the funeral and was in this kind of bind, then he would understand what the indigent are faced with,” Childs said.
The program allowed reimbursement of $1,103 in funeral expenses and $552 in cemetery costs to public aid recipients, Vera said. Last year, the state paid nearly $9.6 million to cover expenses for 8,649 people.
Leak said he loses money on each indigent service he takes on, but does it out of compassion and goodwill for the community. Leak handled more than 300 indigent funerals in 2014, each with an average cost of about $3,900.
“I’m not going to be the first in three generations of Leaks to turn someone away. We’ll find a way,” he said.
Leak said he proposed a plan to save the state-run program, but he has not heard back from Rauner’s office.
“This isn’t Rauner’s fault at all,” Leak said. “He was elected to get our state back to fiscal order, but it’s not going to be done within the first two months of his term. And I would hope he would look into getting other ideas from different people before any permanent decisions are made.”
Rauner’s office issued a statement that read, in part: Gov. “Pat Quinn enacted a budget with a $1.6 billion hole that needs to be closed, which the governor is doing without borrowing or increasing taxes.”
“We didn’t come to any of these decisions lightly,” Vera said. “We needed to make the tough choices in order to balance the budget and preserve core services. We understand this is unfortunate for a lot of people.”
Rauner has suspended the program this year and is cutting it out of his proposed 2016 budget.
“If a funeral home knows there’s some type of financial repayment through the state, they’re more likely to do the removal,” said Jay Markwell, president of the Illinois Funeral Directors Association.
Similar cuts were made under the Quinn administration. At the time Cook County Medical Examiner Nancy Jones said the cuts, which lasted for only a few months, contributed to a backlog of bodies at the morgue.
Markwell fears that “morgues in Illinois will fill up and coroners and medical examiners will get bogged down” again.
Frank Shuftan, spokesman for the Cook County medical examiner’s office, said there will be no backlog of bodies at the morgue, noting the office has “been moving more towards cremation.”
In 2014, Cook County arranged for 248 people to be buried or cremated. The morgue can hold 275 bodies, according to Shuftan.