The state’s chief medical examiner’s office wants to double the fee it charges next of kin for it to examine a body before it’s cremated, providing a potential budget boon that funeral directors worry comes on the backs of grieving loved ones.
The proposal, which officials expect to put in place by August, would hike from $100 to $200 the fee the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner charges to visually inspect every body set to be cremated.
With an estimated 30,000 views a year, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner would stand to collect $6 million annually — or twice the $3 million that the fee currently generates, officials said. Officials notified lawmakers last month of the proposed increase, which doesn’t require a change in law to go into effect.
But the hike has stirred frustration among some funeral directors, who argue a 100 percent increase will only further tax the growing number of families who’ve opted against traditional burials.
In a four-year span, the number of cremation views the medical examiner’s office processed spiked 25 percent, topping 29,200 in fiscal year 2018, records show. And that additional $100 would come on top of the thousands of others dollars a funeral can typically cost.
“I think it’s going to be a big expense for the families, especially people who have limited income,” said Paul Phaneuf, owner of St. Pierre-Phaneuf Funeral Chapels. “When you raise something 100 percent, people will take a look and say, ‘Wow, that’s substantial.’ Unfortunately, the consumer is not going to have any choice in it.”
State officials argue the fee hasn’t increased in 10 years, and that the extra revenue would go toward a range of initiatives, from helping pay salaries of newly hired medical examiners to covering the costs of expanding the hours at its Cape Cod facility, from five days a week to seven.
The agency also launched a new online portal in January to help it better communicate with funeral homes, and this fall, intends to open a long-delayed, $15 million facility in Westfield, which will operates 24 hours a day and replace its office in Holyoke and borrowed space it uses in Worcester.
The fee hike is in addition to the nearly $12 million in state funding the office is expected to receive next fiscal year, itself a $2 million boost from two years ago.
“The OCME is committed to providing the highest level of medico-legal services available,” said Jake Wark, a spokesman for the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, which oversees the chief medical examiner.
The office plans to take feedback on the proposal at a July 19 public hearing at One Ashburton Place, but whether it could be persuaded to back off is unclear. Eric Hogberg, the office’s general counsel, told lawmakers in a June 11 letter that the office expects the increase to go into effect within 60 days, or mid-August. State statute says the fee must only be at least $75.
The agency, which last month learned it would keep its newly won accreditation despite slipping performance, has support within the industry, too. Adrianne Faggas — president of the Massachusetts Funeral Directors Association, which represents nearly 500 establishments — said she and other funeral directors met with state officials months ago to discuss the increase, which she considers “long overdue.”
“The increase will help with many improvements to medical legal services that they provide to families of the commonwealth,” Faggas, the funeral director for Faggas Funeral Home in Watertown, said in an e-mail.
David Brezniak, of Brezniak-Rodman Funeral Directors in Newton, argued the rising number of cremations also creates demands for more views and administrative work.
“I know there probably are funeral directors who are upset about it,” he said. “But it’s the cost of providing services to the public. The amount of cremations has steadily increased over the last 10, 15 years. We’re almost hitting new territory.”
The proposal, however, has inflamed other criticisms about the fee system. Performing cremation views is designed, in part, to ensure the office does some type of investigation into deaths before a body is cremated.
But even in cases of violent deaths, which typically prompt a more intensive autopsy, next of kin who choose to cremate the body once it’s released from the medical examiner are still required to pay a cremation view fee. It’s a practice that’s chaffed some funeral directors, who argue it amounts to charging families for work already performed under the medical examiner’s primary responsibilities.
“They’re looking for revenue enhancement,” said Peter Stefan, funeral director and owner of Graham, Putnam and Mahoney Funeral Parlors in Worcester.
“Why do they need any money for a viewing when it’s already been viewed in the original investigation? And now you want to raise it to $200? They can go to hell.”
Officials noted that under state law, the view, and its attached fee, is required for “any person whose body is intended for cremation.”
Stefan, however, argued that if the office needs an infusion of cash, state officials should consider using some of the budget surplus they’re expected to reap this year. Tax revenues were tracking $952 million above projections at the close of May.
“Don’t go looking to the public to pay more,” Stefan said.