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Public administrator saves money not responding to deaths

Jack Clark, a Republican candidate for Clark County public administrator, promises to reinstate the practice of responding to deaths at hospitals, hospices and nursing homes, if he wins.

“Absolutely, that will be my first priority. It was one of the reasons I decided to run,” said Clark, a former Henderson city councilman and retired police officer. “Few of us will ever need the services of the public administrator’s office, but the people who do, really, really do.”

Democratic incumbent John Cahill contends Clark won’t have the resources to do it.

“When I came here in 2007, we responded to every call. We’d be anywhere in town in 40 minutes,” Cahill said. It was a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week service.

Cahill said the caseloads were too heavy and on April 1, 2008, he changed the policy. No automatic responses to deaths in hospitals, hospices and nursing homes to secure property. The health care facilities are now responsible for securing the property and locating family.

Cahill has six full-time case managers and uses 12 part-time investigators making $15 an hour. The average cost was $60 to secure property on the initial call.

Cahill calculated about 56 cases a month were coming from calls from hospitals, hospices and nursing homes. “We estimated about 10 percent of those cases would be referred (back to his office) and the rest would be handled by the families,” Cahill said.

Sometimes his investigators would arrive before the family.

“Some things were happening that weren’t real good. Like a guy drops dead on a golf course, is transported to the hospital, they called the death at the hospital and they call us to pick the stuff up. We go to the hospital and do that. Then the spouse calls and says: I need to pick up his wallet and ring.”

The response charge is $150 the widow has to pay for her husband’s effects when she was there within two hours.

It’s really not a big problem for the hospice, said Nathan Adelson Hospice’s Mona Raynor. It’s a rare case where hospice officials don’t know of a family member.

A spokeswoman for St. Rose Dominican Hospital San Martin Campus, where Richard Cunningham died, said the hospital contacts police to try to locate families if no one is present when someone dies.

“If no relatives are located, the mortuary on call is informed and the public administrator’s office is called,” said Jennifer McDonnell. “If it is a case that must be referred to the Clark County Coroner’s Office, the coroner makes follow-up attempts to locate family.”

Patients’ property is stored for up to three years by the hospital. If it isn’t claimed, it’s turned over to state officials, donated to charity or shredded for patient privacy. Jewelry, money, credit cards, driver’s licenses, checkbooks, wallets, keys, cell phones, electronic devices and cameras are among the items secured.

But hospitals aren’t authorized to go to someone’s home to secure property.

What nobody can tally is: How many cases like Cunningham’s occur? His father didn’t find out about his son’s death for four months.

Cahill said the hospital never referred Cunningham’s case back to his office as it should have. Hospital officials won’t comment on Cunningham’s case, the subject of Saturday’s column.

How many others fall through the cracks?

The policy change saved about $113,000 the first year and $63,000 this year. And the caseload has dropped.

In 2007, Cahill’s office handled 2,219 cases, and 1,716 were new cases.

In 2009, the caseload dropped to 1,475, and 937 were new cases.

Cahill has achieved his goal. The workload on his small staff decreased.

But at what cost to the families of the dead?

Jane Ann Morrison’s column appears Monday, Thursday and Saturday. E-mail her at Jane@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0275. She also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/morrison.

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