A county supervisor, reacting to a report that burials of military veterans were delayed for months, proposed today that the coroner's office be given 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.
"I am outraged to hear about any delays in processing veteran decedents," Supervisor Don Knabe said in a statement. "If delays occurred, processes need to be changed."
The unclaimed bodies of 49 veterans have been awaiting burial at the morgue, according to a county spokesman. An email released to KCAL9 last week put the number at about 60, but spokesman David Sommers said that figure was too high.
The wait for burial was 14 months in the longest-delayed case, Sommers said.
An official with the county morgue told reporters that personnel changes at the Department of Veterans Affairs and stringent eligibility checks for burial in a national cemetery were the cause of the delays.
Schedulers at the federal agency said they were unaware of the problem and hadn't received a call from county officials to schedule burials.
An official with the county's Department of Military and Veterans Affairs told the Board of Supervisors this afternoon that a mortuary contracted to transfer the bodies to the cemetery had changed its policy, leading to delays.
On May 1, the mortuary announced it would no longer transfer the bodies of veterans with families, even if those families cannot afford to pay for burial, according to DMVA Director Ruth Wong.
That affects about half the veterans that end up at the morgue, Wong said. She added that the department is updating its contract with the mortuary and changing other policies to "ensure that our veterans are treated with dignity and respect."
Forty-four of the 49 bodies were transferred on Friday to the coroner's office, where their identities will need to be reconfirmed before transfer to Riverside National Cemetery, Sommers said. Of the remaining five, some were still being checked for eligibility, while the families of others had made their own arrangements for burial.
Chief Coroner Mark Fajardo said it would take some more time to accurately identity many of the dead, a process 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 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. Knabe's proposal would make the coroner's office responsible for both functions.
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.
—City News Service