Segerblom wants a Clark County morgue

Calls for end to funeral home rotation and fees for corpses

By: - September 24, 2021 5:31 am

Bodies stacked in Hites Funeral Home in July, photographed during a state inspection.

Clark County Commissioner Tick Segerblom wants to scrap a longstanding arrangement that outsources to private mortuaries services traditionally provided by government coroners.  

“Clark County needs its own morgue,” he said via text earlier this month.

A rotation that previously included a number of mortuaries that volunteered to be on-call 24/7 to transport and store corpses under the care of the coroner’s office is now down to one — Davis Funeral Home on Eastern Ave.

“Davis Eastern is overflowing,” says Segerblom. “They have semi-trucks” storing bodies in the parking lot, he says.

About 77 percent of Davis’ refrigerated storage (375 of 490 spaces) was in use as of Sept. 8, according to the Nevada Funeral and Cemetery Services Board.   

Outsourcing responsibility

Like everything else, COVID-19 has brought what some say is a longstanding problem, to a head. Last year, 3,529 people died from COVID-19 in Nevada. Through Sept. 8 of this year, another 2,800 in the state have succumbed to the disease, according to Nevada Vital Statistics.

Some of those people end up in the coroner’s office, adding to an already heavy caseload.

Clark County Coroner Melanie Rouse says her office reviews about a third of all deaths in the area — generally those that are violent, unexpected, involve indigents, or a person who was not under the care of a doctor.

Her responsibilities also include transporting corpses from homes, hospitals and elsewhere to the coroner’s office. But the coroner’s office doesn’t have the vehicles or cold storage space to fulfill that obligation, so it outsources the responsibility to mortuaries that agree to join a rotation.

The coroner’s office previously had capacity to store 70 corpses but recently added space for another 20.

Segerblom says it’s time for Southern Nevada to build a morgue to augment current space in the coroner’s office, and purchase the vehicles that would allow the county to eliminate the mortuary rotation.

“It’s a government function,” Segerblom says of transporting and storing corpses in the coroner’s care. “Private business should not be handling dead bodies the state is obligated to protect.”

But Rouse, a newcomer to Clark County who spent 16 years at the Maricopa County Medical Examiner’s office in Phoenix, says while more space would be helpful, it wouldn’t address the underlying issue of “expediting final disposition.”

Some corpses in the coroner’s care remain in storage for weeks without families finalizing arrangements, necessitating the current need for mortuaries to help out by freeing up storage space in the coroner’s office.

But mortuaries are a business, too, and the increase in deaths because of COVID has not translated into higher profits, according to Steve Spann, president of John A. Gupton College, which offers education in the mortuary industry. Bans and a general reluctance to gather put a damper on traditional services with all the costly accoutrement. Spann told Fortune last month the impact was “in the 20% to 30% reduction range.”  

That gives mortuaries another reason to not rejoin Clark County’s rotation.

“When I started, there were eight or nine companies in the county’s rotation,” says former State Sen. Warren Hardy, a consultant to mortuaries La Paloma and Simple Cremation. “We made a business decision to get off the rotation.”

Hardy says his clients feared the shrinking number of participants in the rotation would place too much demand on their company’s resources.

Since 2016, two mortuaries — Hite Funeral Home and Davis Funeral Home — were the on-call mortuaries, shouldering the responsibility of coroner’s cases, which includes transporting corpses before and after the coroner’s investigation and storing them when final arrangements are pending. 

As the Current reported last month, state regulators suspended Hites’ license for improperly storing corpses, including some under the jurisdiction of the coroner, leaving Davis as the only mortuary contracting with the county.

The county agreement calls for the mortuary to pay the county “an administrative-transportation fee of $60 for each coroner case” that results in the mortuary making arrangements for “final disposition.”

“It’s outrageous,” Segerblom says of mortuaries paying what amounts to a finder’s fee to the government. He says he doesn’t know how much it would cost to make the coroner’s office self-sufficient.

“The rotation system needs to be reformed,” says Hardy. “The county feels like the mortuary is getting the opportunity to keep the case and that’s all you need.”

“They need to have the coroner’s office get geared up to do it — get the vehicles for transport and room for refrigeration,” Hardy says, adding it “will cost a lot.”

“It would be so much easier to pay a little something — maybe $100, to the mortuaries,” to transport and store overflow cases from the coroner’s office, he says, adding “everyone would get back on the rotation.”

Washoe County has a similar rotation for coroner’s cases, minus the $60 payment from the mortuary to the county for the opportunity to pitch final arrangements to the deceased’s loved ones.

“There’s no money changing hands,” says Justin Norton, operations manager for the Washoe County Medical Examiner. “I’d assume the mortuaries’ reason for being on the rotation is the hope of being on the scene first with the family.”

Taking advantage to cut costs?

Some mortuary owners allege their colleagues, in an effort to save money on staff, take advantage of the current system by failing to answer their phones after hours to avoid having to pick up corpses whose loved ones request that mortuary, leaving it to the on-call mortuary instead.

“It’s easier to pick up a body from another mortuary the next day than from a home, where you may be going upstairs, or dealing with a family,” said Jennifer Kandt, executive director of the Nevada Board of Funeral and Cemetery Services.

The rotation practice can also prove costly to families and loved ones of the deceased, as the Current reported earlier this month.

Staci Hess Risch was visiting Las Vegas when her uncle died.  She was told it would cost $1,000 to transfer his remains from Hites, the on-call mortuary, to the one she preferred.  

“I didn’t have time to put my ducks in a row,” Risch said, on preparing for her uncle’s death. “You hope that the people they send,” she said, “have your best interests at heart, or your loved one’s.” 

An effort last year by the Funeral Board to form a subcommittee to examine the rotation system prompted a letter from Hardy’s client, La Paloma owner Ryan Bowen, threatening board members with an ethics complaint.

Bowen objected to a statement he attributed to board member Brian Rebman, owner of a Moapa Valley mortuary, that “funeral homes are designing their business plans around taking advantage of the rotation mortuaries, and that is how they can offer lower prices.”

Rebman, who also alleged unethical practices in the mortuary industry, did not respond to requests for comment.

Bowen of La Paloma wrote to the board that Rebman was “drawing the board and the agency dangerously close to interfering with market practices,” which he said is outside their charge of ensuring public safety, and threatened to file a complaint with state ethics officials.

Bowen’s brother, Shaun, a co-owner of the mortuary, is a chief deputy investigator for the Attorney General. When the brothers’ mortuary was alleged to be in violation of state regulations for improperly storing body parts, the job of prosecuting the civil charges fell to Shaun Bowen’s colleagues in the AG’s office, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported in 2017.

Then-assistant AG Wes Duncan found Bowen’s management of the mortuary conflicted with his state job.

Hardy says he doesn’t find anything improper about his clients threatening an ethics complaint when one of them is a state investigator.

Sanctions issued by the Funeral Board at its August meeting indicate the public’s welfare is being placed in jeopardy by the rotation system.

McDermott Funeral Home, according to a consent decree issued by the Funeral Board, failed to retrieve a body from the on-call mortuary Davis Funeral Home in January for 25 days after it was notified.

McDermott agreed to pay the board’s legal fees and said it would make “a reasonable effort” to pick up bodies within 48 hours. 

Simple Cremation was to pick up a body on Jan. 4, 2021 from Davis Funeral Home, according to the stipulated facts in another consent decree issued by the board in August, but failed to do so until Jan. 20.

In another incident involving Simple Cremation, the “decedent was not picked up until January 7, 2021, even though the family authorized the release on December 24, 2020.”

Like McDermott, Simple Cremation agreed to “make a reasonable effort” to pick up bodies from other mortuaries within 48 hours of notification.

Pushing capacity

Under Nevada law, corpses that are not immediately buried or cremated must be either embalmed or placed in refrigerated storage upon receipt by the mortuary. The state’s Funeral Board does not regulate storage capacity in mortuaries, but it does track refrigerated storage.  

According to a survey completed by the state on Sept. 8, almost 37% (592 of 1,612) of the refrigerated storage space in Southern Nevada was in use. In Washoe and Carson counties, almost half of the cold storage (282 of 601 spaces) was filled.   

According to the state, at Palm Mortuary’s downtown location, which provides storage for the company’s other locations, all 225 refrigerated spaces were in use, as well as 140 of the 220 spaces for its crematorium in the same facility.

Walton Funeral, one of the two mortuaries on the Washoe County rotation, is at about half capacity, with 102 of 201 storage spaces in use. The other mortuary on the rotation, Truckee Meadows, was using 70 of 120 spaces, as of Sept. 8, according to the state’s report.

Additionally, the Washoe County Medical Examiner’s office recently expanded its refrigerated storage capacity, according to Norton.

“We can do about 200,” he says. “That’s pushing our mass capacity.”

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Dana Gentry
Dana Gentry

Dana Gentry is a native Las Vegan and award-winning investigative journalist. She is a graduate of Bishop Gorman High School and holds a Bachelor's degree in Communications from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Gentry began her career in broadcasting as an intern at Channel 8, KLAS-TV. She later became a reporter at Channel 8, working with Las Vegas TV news legends Bob Stoldal and the late Ned Day. Gentry left her reporting job in 1985 to focus on motherhood. She returned to TV news in 2001 to launch "Face to Face with Jon Ralston" and the weekly business programs In Business Las Vegas and Vegas Inc, which she co-anchored with Jeff Gillan. Dana has four adult children, two grandsons, three dogs, three cats and a cockatoo named Casper.