LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com) — A county supervisor proposed Tuesday that the coroner’s office be handed responsibility for the county morgue — which is currently run by the Department of Health Services out of a facility at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center — following a report that the burials of military veterans were delayed for months.
“I am outraged to hear about any delays in processing veteran decedents,” Supervisor Don Knabe said in his statement. “If delays occurred, processes need to be changed.”
The unclaimed bodies of 49 veterans have reportedly been awaiting burial at the morgue, according to a county spokesman. An email, that was released to KCAL9 last week, put the number of bodies at more than 60, but spokesman David Sommers said that the original figure was high.
The longest-delayed case resulted in a wait for burial of 14 months, according to Sommers.
An official with the county morgue told reporters that the delays were due to personnel changes at the Department of Veterans Affairs, along with stringent eligibility checks for burial in a national cemetery.
Schedulers at the federal agency said that they had never received a call from county officials to schedule burials, and that they were unaware of the issue.
An official with the county’s Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, meanwhile, told the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday that the delays were caused by changes in policy within a mortuary that was contracted to transfer the bodies to the cemetery.
The mortuary announced on May 1 that it would no longer transfer the bodies of veterans with families, even if those families were unable to afford paying for burial, according to DMVA Director Ruth Wong.
That policy reportedly affects about half the veterans that end up at the morgue, Wong said, adding that the department is updating its contract with the mortuary, and that it is changing other policies to “ensure that our veterans are treated with dignity and respect.”
44 of the 49 bodies were transferred to the coroner’s office on Friday, where their identities will need to be reconfirmed before transfer to Riverside National Cemetery, Sommers said.
Of the remaining five veterans, some were still undergoing checks for eligibility, while the families of others had made their own arrangements for burial.
Chief Coroner Mark Fajardo suggested it would take more time to accurately identify many of the dead; a process he says is required each time a body is transferred.
“We would anticipate within the following month to properly bury the remainder of the deceased,” Fajardo told the board.
The coroner’s office currently handles deaths that are deemed to be suspicious, while those who die of natural causes, but whose bodies are unclaimed by family or friends, are sent to the morgue, under current protocol.
Knabe’s proposal would make the coroner’s office responsible for both circumstances.
The board directed the county’s chief executive to report back in 30 days on the feasibility of merging those operations and the county cemetery and crematorium within the Department of Coroner.
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