Cook County's medical examiner on Thursday fended off criticism about conditions at the morgue, saying that recent overcrowding was "an anomaly" caused by the state's short-lived decision to cut funding used to cover burial costs for the poor.
Last week, a report in theChicago Sun-Timescited an anonymous source alleging the morgue was storing nearly 500 bodies in a cooler designed to hold about half that number.
Dr. Nancy Jones said that figure was too high, but said the number of bodies last week was more than 300. She said her office was trying to reduce the number as quickly as possible. This week, about 100 were buried.
"We were over capacity, which is why last week we had been trying to arrange a county burial for that Friday but were unable to do so because the cemetery already had several private burials scheduled for that day and was unable to accommodate us," Jones said. "Our morgue population fluctuates every single day, and this particular incident was an anomaly that occurred because last summer the state cut public funding for indigent burials."
Last summer, the state suspended a program that paid funeral homes about $1,600 per person to help defray the cost of burial for the destitute. The funding was restored this year, but in the interim, many funeral homes stopped accepting the remains of the indigent, requiring the morgue to store more bodies.
Jones said the increase put further pressure on the morgue, which must store bodies for at least three months while state and federal officials try to determine whether the deceased had assets to cover burial or whether they are veterans who qualify for military burial.
On Wednesday, County Board President Toni Preckwinkle hinted she was displeased with Jones' handling of the morgue.
"There have been recurring issues there; that's quite true," she said. "I'm concerned about it. My ability to deal with it is limited by the fact the person who is in charge of it has a term of office as opposed to serving at my pleasure. I think I'll leave it at that."
Jones, who was appointed by former Board President Todd Stroger, declined to respond, except to say, "I don't know the context in which it was said, and I was not there when she said it. Right now, what I've actually been doing all day today, and all day yesterday, and what I'll be doing tomorrow, is my job to the best of my ability."
On Thursday, spokeswoman Liane Jackson said Preckwinkle understands the challenges.
"The president appreciates the hard work of employees at the medical examiner's office who are dealing with an unprecedented rise in the amount of deceased remains that require storage, combined with a steep drop in funding," Jackson said. "At the same time, goals clearly remain to increase accountability and efficiency at the ME's office, the same sort of performance management targets the president requires of all county departments."