Fla. Medical Examiners to Discuss FEMA’s Non-Hurricane Funeral Payments

August 10, 2005

The Florida Medical Examiners Commission will meet Thursday on Key Biscayne, Fla. to discuss findings indicating that the Federal Emergency Management Agency paid hurricane funeral claims in Florida amounting to $1.3 million, two-thirds of which were unrelated to hurricanes. A commission review has indicated that at least 203 of the 319 deaths reported to FEMA were not caused by any of the four hurricanes.

Commission records show that FEMA made some payments for deaths that occurred months after the storms or out of state. According to the South Florida Sun Sentinel, several of the families provided FEMA with letters from doctors saying stress from the hurricanes possibly contributed to the deaths that medical examiners determined were caused by heart disease and other natural ailments.

“I can’t begin to tell you what these people did to get some funding. None of those cases were even remotely associated with any kind of a hurricane,” Rebecca Hamilton, Lee County medical examiner, told the Sun-Sentinel. In Lee County, hurricane funeral claims included a hospice patient and two people who died of cancer.

FEMA funeral assistance also covered 10 people who were not in Florida at the time of their deaths and six suicides, including that of a Lady Lake man who was “distraught over business indebtedness,” according to coroner records.

After last year’s hurricanes, FEMA officials said they relied on coroners, news stories, family doctors, police and paramedics in deciding whether to pay a funeral claim.

FEMA last week announced changes to its disaster assistance program, including how it awards funeral money. Applicants must now prove they are legally “next of kin,” provide signed documentation from a coroner, medical examiner or doctor attributing the death to the disaster, a death certificate and evidence that “funeral expenses have not been met by other resources.”

The newspaper reported that FEMA refused to explain the claims, citing privacy laws, but gave the names of the dead to the medical examiners with a warning not to publicly release them.

FEMA spokeswoman Nicol Andrews told The Associated Press on Wednesday that “under federal law, FEMA is precluded from releasing information that is protected by the privacy act.”

The commission determined the claims were public documents under Florida law and released them to the Sun-Sentinel.

The agency reportedly told the Gainesville coroner that anyone who died “while receiving services such as housing from FEMA” was eligible for funeral benefits, Larry Bedore, the coroner’s director of operations, wrote in a June 14 e-mail to the Medical Examiners Commission.

“Our policy is that we will pay for funeral expenses for deaths that are not just a direct result of a disaster but also those that are related to the disaster,” Andrews said. Examples would include a power outage cutting of life support systems for a patient in the late stages of cancer, or someone unable to get to a hospital because a tree blocks the road, she said.

Andrews said more than two-thirds of the funeral claims that FEMA processed were denied.

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