State Plans To End Regulation Of Funeral Homes

August 4, 2011
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Connecticut (Hartford Courant): Funeral home directors say that a plan by the state Department of Public Health to stop licensing and regulating funeral homes and embalmers could destroy the credibility of an industry that has had to recover from its share of scandals.

After the health department this week announced that it was deregulating the profession as part of a proposed $20 million budget cut, the chairman of the agency’s own funeral and embalmer examining board said that the lack of oversight would probably harm consumers.

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“Once we lose the licensing, we lose the ability to control what occurs,” said the chairman, Daniel Jowdy, who is also a funeral home director in Danbury. “Someone who was forced to surrender his license because of violations could walk right back into the industry, and you’re going to have non-qualified people coming into the business.”

The board has taken disciplinary action against more than 40 funeral homes, directors and embalmers in the past three years, including former funeral director Kevin Riley, who went to prison earlier this year for stealing money and valuables from homes that he entered to remove bodies. Riley was able to insinuate himself as the executor of estates of people who died and had no relatives.

Through the years, unscrupulous funeral home operators have been disciplined, fined or banished from the profession for such transgressions as cremating the wrong body, reselling top-tier coffins that were already bought by families, switching coffins after families had left the grave site and mishandling trust funds containing thousands of dollars for prepaid funerals.

Health department spokesman William Gerrish said the proposed cuts were unfortunate but necessary. The department would also stop regulating college infirmaries and some clinics, although the licensed professionals in those places would still be subject to health department oversight.

“We looked at the professions we regulate and we tried to select those that had some form of other oversight,” said Gerrish. “We have to focus our investigative and regulatory resources on those areas that have greatest impact on public health.”

He said, for example, that the state Department of Consumer Protection regulates the prepaid funeral trusts.

But the department’s funeral home examining board also has jurisdiction over the trust funds and often took the lead in investigations, Jowdy said. The board has suspended or revoked several funeral home licenses for the squandering of trust funds. In Connecticut, about $200 million is invested in these prepaid trusts, Jowdy said.

“Now you’ll have unlicensed people handling that money,” he said.

The health department’s action would eliminate the job of the state’s sole funeral home inspector, Edward Bergin.

“The inspector’s unannounced visits kept everyone on their toes,” Jowdy said. “He has the expertise to recognize violations that others would miss.”

Bergin handled inspections and was responsible for answering complaints against the state’s 317 funeral homes and crematories, Jowdy said.

Rep. Janice Giegler, R-Danbury, noted that the inspector’s position was reinstated 10 years ago after a series of scandals.

As a result, she said, “funeral homes have had fewer violations and several of the inspector’s investigations have [led to] suspensions, loss of license and Ö incarceration.”

She said that the number of prepaid funerals has increased and that state oversight of those funds is crucial.

Gerrish said he didn’t know whether a person stripped of his funeral home license for wrongdoing could re-enter the profession if the deregulation plan goes through.

“We’re still working out the details of how this would be implemented,” he said.

Jowdy said there were 185 students enrolled in mortuary science courses at Connecticut colleges.

“If they don’t need a license, should they be required to attend school?” Jowdy asked. “We also have a requirement that funeral directors take six hours of continuing education each year. How could we enforce that mandate if we have no control over the industry?”

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