Opioid epidemic draining West Virginia’s burial assistance fund

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The topic of funeral expenses after the death of a loved one can be an uncomfortable conversation, but a necessary one. West Virginia funeral director Fred Kitchen said there’s an alarming trend that makes the topic even more complicated to address. “The drug overdose rate in West Virginia has really increased a lot of pressure on the funeral business in general,” Kitchen said. 

The indigent burial program is supposed to relieve some of that pressure. Funded by the state Department of Health and Human Resources, it provides assistance to families that need help paying for a funeral. But that fund is being depleted quicker every year, according to DHHR Secretary Bill Crouch.

 “Every year we run out of funds. We talked to the legislature about this, and we have no other choice but to let those folks go through another avenue to obtain those funds,” Crouch said. 

Rob Kimes with the WV Funeral Association attributes the hemorrhage of money to the opioid epidemic. “Drug overdoses can happen to any status, but usually it’s the younger people, that generation that we’re losing. Those aren’t the ones who are planning for their funerals. They’re planning on the ability to get their fix,” Kimes said.  

The $2 million budget for the burial assistance program for this fiscal year was used up in February, leaving funeral homes to foot the bill. The state gives $1250 to the funeral home if a family is approved through their local DHHR office. The funeral home then asks the family to try and match that amount, totaling $2450. 

The rest, manpower and services, is donated.  Some funeral homes in the state are struggling without the funding, with 20% of business coming from the indigent burial program. 

“You think about that, I mean 20% of your business is something that you may not even be getting any funds for, but yet you’re going to have to provide a casket for, a concrete box, plus donate all your staff services and your funeral home services. How much of that can you afford to do before it starts creating real havoc on your business bottom line,” Kitchen said. 

With the account quickly draining, and the state already in a financial crisis, the future looks bleak. The solution, according to governor Jim Justice, is to attack the drug problem from every angle.

“We need to hire more social workers, we need to build treatment facilities, we need to hire more enforcement people , we need to stiffen up the laws. We need to absolutely do everything all across the board to attack this problem and fix it because it’s going to cannibalize our state,” Justice said. 

Funeral home directors are looking to the DHHR to impose more rules, so the funds aren’t abused. “I think we need to have stricter vetting processes, making sure we can verify a family is a West Virginia resident, making sure the funeral home has to be a West Virginia funeral home only,” Kitchen said.

In the meantime, funeral homes are left to pick up the slack, hoping for a better outcome next year. 

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