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December 18, 2014

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County stops retrieving the departed’s possessions

Burden will be shifted to health care workers because of budget cuts

Cahill

Cahill

Clark County Public Administrator John Cahill is ending a major part of what his obscure county office does — respond to hospitals and hospices to secure the personal property of the dead.

The cutbacks are proof that not even the business of death is immune to the realities of leaner economic times. They also raise the question of who should be responsible for dealing with a deceased person’s unclaimed property — the government or the health care community.

Cahill says his office has been providing the service as a courtesy and that it’s time for hospitals, hospices and nursing homes to pick up the burden. But some in the health care field say the move shifts what should be a government responsibility onto already overburdened nurses and social workers.

Cahill stopped responding to calls from health care facilities last week. Traditionally, the office has responded around the clock, seven days a week, to secure personal property of the deceased when no family members are present.

But Cahill said that service isn’t required by state law. Facing a tight county budget and a growing workload, his office can’t take on cases it isn’t mandated to handle, he said.

The decision isn’t going over well with nurses and social workers.

“Ultimately, this discontinuation of service will take away from our ability to focus on our patients,” said Angie Silla, a patient advocate and registered nurse who works at a local hospice.

She also worries that the deceased person’s home will be ripe for vandalism and theft if not secured quickly by the public administrator’s staff.

Cahill acknowledges that his decision will create a new burden for the private sector.

“Personal property of decedent patients at health care facilities must be secured by your facility and returned to the family,” he wrote in a letter to health care facilities in February. “This may require new procedures, better record keeping and improved gathering of information on next of kin and family by your organization.”

Health care facilities still can refer cases to the public administrator, but only after completing a checklist and a five-page reference form. The checklist includes questions such as the nature of the deceased person’s assets and suggests steps that health care facilities should take to answer such questions, including searching the county assessor’s Web site to see whether the deceased owned property in Clark County.

Candis Armour, executive director of Solari Hospice Care, said health care facilities aren’t equipped to probe a patient’s assets and locate unknown family members.

“It’s going to take a lot of time and effort on the part of our social workers,” she said. “We are health care people. We are not private investigators.”

Steve Cox, head social worker at St. Rose Dominican Hospitals, said hospitals will probably be the hardest hit. “We are still trying to figure out how we are going to deal with it,” he said.

Cahill made the decision without consulting hospitals or hospices, even though about 40 percent of the roughly 140 monthly calls concerning people who have died come from health care facilities. The rest come from the coroner, police and elsewhere.

Cahill argues that the service cuts are necessary because the county, which provides about half of his office’s $1 million annual budget, faces belt tightening amid a drop in tax revenues. That makes it difficult to get additional staff even as the workload grows, he said.

“I am not going to get any more staff,” he said. “How am I going to justify getting more people to look after dead people’s stuff?”

Instead, his goal is to decrease the office’s workload, he said.

Until last week, one of the office’s dozen part-time, on-call estate investigators would respond to health care facilities to secure the dead’s personal property, such as purses, wallets, jewelry and clothing. In many cases, the investigator also would go to the deceased person’s home to find family contact information, locate a will, seal the home and take easy-to-carry valuables back to the public administrator’s office for safe storage.

After the initial response, cases were assigned to one of the office’s four full-time estate coordinators, each of whom averages about 100 open cases. Cahill and his assistant public administrator also handle cases.

An increase in caseloads resulted in an unprecedented amount of overtime last year for estate coordinators, he said.

Many cases are resolved within a few weeks by locating family members and arranging for them to pick up the deceased person’s possessions. If heirs can’t be located, Cahill petitions the court to become the estate’s administrator. He then transfers the assets to cash and forwards it to the state’s unclaimed property division.

Health care officials aren’t the only ones who recognize that the service cuts will leave a void. One of Cahill’s former estate investigators is hawking services similar to those the public administrator’s office is no longer providing.

That has caused some controversy because the investigator, Brantley Gubler, had not formally resigned before sending letters to health care facilities about his new private company.

Gubler already had worked the maximum number of hours allowed for the year and had not been on the schedule for about a month when he began soliciting for his private business, Cahill said.

Gubler said he’d verbally resigned prior to sending out letters about his business. Only after Cahill found out that Gubler had been advertising his private company did he ask him to sign a resignation letter.

The cutback is Cahill’s latest effort to curtail his office’s activities. He had already stopped sending estate investigators to outlying areas such as Laughlin. Under a deal with Clark County Coroner Michael Murphy, death investigators from the coroner’s office handle the work previously performed by estate investigators.

Cahill says he has more service cuts planned, including eliminating calls at hotels and resorts.

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