Rising number of indigent burials straining county budget

ST. LOUIS COUNTY — Nearly a quarter of a million dollars has been spent this year on indigent burials throughout St. Louis County, where the poverty rate is 5 percent higher than the state average, leaving county workers to once again face a projected budget deficit.

When someone dies without the funds or a spouse able to shoulder the financial toll of death arrangements, state statutes require Minnesota counties to pick up the tab through levy dollars, for which they’ll receive no reimbursement. That bill could include a memorial service and funeral home fees, burial or cremation services, and medical examiners’ fees.

On Thursday, Dusty Letica, financial assistance division director the county’s Public Health and Human Services, told the Hibbing Daily Tribune that 125 people received a $1,900 county burial or $237,500 total so far this year. Letica said “luckily” the county has been able to make up for the budget shortfall of up to $200,000 over the last several years, yet the growing number of people requiring indigent services simply isn’t sustainable.

Letica referred to a MinnPost article published last month that pointed out how St. Louis County (Pop: 200,000) paid $450,000 for indigent burials in 2018, surpassing costs in Ramsey County (Pop. 547,974). “St. Louis isn’t the only one incurring extra costs this year and I think it’s eye opening that Ramsey County is three times our population yet we have more costs,” Letica said.

He continued, “There’s a variety of factors that may play into why. [St. Louis County] is at about a 14 percent poverty rate compared to the rest of the state, which is around 9 percent, so we do have a little higher poverty rate. And the other thing is that other counties have stricter burial policies. They don't allow as much excluded assets or pay certain fees associated with county burials.”

Applying for an indigent burial

Today, if someone applies for an indigent burial, St. Louis County will look to see if the available assets add up to $1,704 or less. Anything over that amount would either be deducted from the county’s contribution or result in a denial.

According to the county application, reviewers consider assets including the resources owned by the deceased or the responsible relative, such as bank accounts, prepaid burial arrangements, trust accounts, life insurance, real estate and vehicles. Reviewers also look at any death benefits that the deceased or responsible relative may be entitled to, like social security death benefits, joint bank accounts, nursing home trust funds, or social welfare funds.

However, so-called “excluded assets” — items not considered — include one home and vehicle and depending on the situation, up to $1,000 in the assets of the responsible relative.

Once approved, it’s not a complete free for all as the burial charges the county is willing to cover are capped. For example, the county will pay up to $2,200 to the funeral home for a traditional burial; $600 for the cemetery lot; $600 for the cemetery open-close fee; and the grave box or vault is billed separately at cost.

“We’re looking at other counties across the state as far as what their policies look like and if there's anything we can include or exclude,” Letica said. “We’re also being very careful that we don’t deny people who would be eligible or could be eligible, but we do want to be cautious about our policies.”

One area they are specifically focusing are the policies surrounding the transferring of assets regarding the surviving spouse and children along with options for enforcing the one vehicle rule when someone has more than one to their name.

Local impact

Last year, Dougherty’s Funeral Home in Hibbing had 17 county-assisted burials pass through their doors. Joseph Schreiner, the funeral director at Rupp Funeral Home and Cremation Service in Chisholm, had 11 indigent burials last year, up by 1 from 2017. Those burials account for a little less than 10 percent of the business, which handles roughly 70-75 burials annually.

“The last few years it seems like there are more people who need those services and it’s not just elderly either,” Schreiner said. “It’s people who are in their 50s and 60s and for some reason or another, they’ve gotten into a difficult situation. We discount quite a bit to help those people.”

It’s become so commonplace that Schreiner has an almost formulaic approach to determining if someone needs to be redirected to the county for an indigent burial application. A frequent tell, he noted, is when a family says there was no life insurance and wants to talk about possible payment plans.

“I tell them that the country helps families and if they have a financial concern there are certain things that disqualifies them, so before we even make arrangements, they have to go there,” he said. “We’ll then have to stop what we’re doing and they have to make an appointment with the county to be evaluated.”

If that person comes back with an approval from the county, Schreiner said he promises the family that they won’t charge them anymore than what the county will cover. “It’s a basic, respectful dignified service but I do not try to sell them anything more,” he said. “When we have a service like that, we don't change what we wear or our attitude and nobody knows that is a county case compared a family that pays full service. There’s no way you can tell.”

In the meantime, county workers will continue to review their policies, striving to strike a balance between a healthy budget and burying its poor with dignity.

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