Bodies backlogged for weeks as Arizona rolls out new death registry

County health director warns top state officials have been plagued with a backlog of death certificate delays due to new system.

Stephanie Johnson's father was in limbo.

"Who dropped the ball on this one? My father, a Vietnam Vet, an organ donor, is stuck laying cut up in some freezer (10 days and counting)," Johnson said in an email to 12 News.

Her father died Oct. 1. He will finally be cremated Wednesday, 17 days later.

The cremation should have happened within 72 hours after his death.

But it took two weeks for the Arizona Department of Health Services to issue a death certificate that would allow the cremation to go ahead.

The troubled rollout of a new state database that issues death certificates has caused a backlog of burials and cremations -- and untold grief for perhaps hundreds of families, according to Maricopa County's public health director and funeral directors.

"It just blows my mind, because there are so many people affected," Johnson said in an interview. "I was getting sent home from work because I was breaking up. It really breaks my heart."

Emails obtained by 12 News under a public records request show Dr. Bob England, the county's health director, warned DHS officials they were dropping the ball.

"I cannot imagine what it must feel like to a grieving family to have extra stress put on them during their time of grief," England said in an interview Monday.

Funeral homes need a "transit permit" to either bury or cremate a body, or ship it to another state.

The state database, known as "DAVE," computerizes a process that had been half-computer and half-paper.

The old system allowed funeral homes to obtain a transit permit before a doctor had completed the death certificate.

The new system requires the doctor to register a death on DAVE before a funeral home can print out a transit permit.

The rollout shows the 3,000 medical professionals who can sign off on death certificates weren't properly prepared by DHS, critics say.

Here's what England said in an email to Colby Bower, assistant director of the Arizona Department of Health Services and the person overseeing the rollout, and DHS Director Dr. Cara Christ, on Oct. 6, four days after the launch:

"This is turning into the mess that every one of us foresaw happening except ADHS.  We did our best to warn you and to ask for really minimal concessions, to no avail.  No practice.  No dry runs.  No pilots.  No workarounds that were available to you for free.  No established back-up process.  No delay even when your own staff were seriously rushed in the run-up to launch."

England has been alerting DHS to bodies stacking up in funeral homes:

"Bodies are arriving at funeral homes at ~3X the rate they are going out. 12 of 47 funeral homes are at or actually above capacity. Burials have been scheduled and then delayed at least 52 times. Services involving cremated remains have been scheduled and then delayed at least 120 times. At least 6 religious 24-hour burial times have been missed."

Under Arizona law, funeral homes aren't required to have refrigeration facilities on the premises.

On Monday, England said the state was allowing paper authorizations back into the process, which appears to be speeding things up.

"We think we are finally just starting now to dig out of the backlog," England said.

Bower, the state official overseeing the rollout, said everything was going as planned.

"It's just like when you go from a flip phone to an iPhone. You don't know where the settings are," he said Monday. 

Bower acknowledged many users of the database weren't up to speed. He also disputed England's numbers on the backlog.

"We're in touch with every funeral home in the state," he said.

"The issues we're experiencing now we anticipated. We anticipated the first few weeks being very difficult."

© 2017 KPNX-TV


JOIN THE CONVERSATION

To find out more about Facebook commenting please read the
Conversation Guidelines and FAQs

Leave a Comment