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Save yourself, family some grief: Carry contact information

Clark County Public Administrator John Cahill says if the county gave him more money for staff, he would happily reinstate the longtime policy of having his investigators respond to natural deaths at health care facilities.

His office once responded to secure the personal property of the deceased if a family member couldn’t be located right away. To return to that procedure might take one full-time case manager and a couple of part-time investigators, he estimates.

Commissioner Steve Sisolak says that’s not going to happen in these tight budgetary times. The money isn’t there to give Cahill more staff.

Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani says, “It’s a service we’ve always provided, and you don’t want to leave your most vulnerable at risk.” She says the commission can find the money if it feels Cahill’s policy “is not societally or morally correct.”

The county commissioners control spending, but they cannot control the policies of another elected county official.

Cahill stopped responding to health care facility deaths in 2008, saying he needed to get control of the workload, and the law made it optional to answer calls from health care facilities. The responsibility to secure personal effects was shifted away from his office. His caseload dropped. He saved $113,000 the first year.

Cahill’s policy is identical to that of Washoe County Public Administrator Donald Cavallo, who changed procedures 16 years ago. Cavallo says there haven’t been problems because his office no longer responds to natural deaths in hospitals, hospices or nursing homes. But there’s a cultural difference between Washoe and Clark counties. Las Vegas has more people who live alone and don’t have family nearby.

It’s hard to tell how big or small this problem is. University Medical Center, just one example, has six boxes of property belonging to people who died there for whom no family could be located.

How hard do health care facilities look for a family member? Do they have the resources? Don’t think so.

The policy dispute divides Cahill, a Democrat, and his GOP challenger, Jack Clark, a former Henderson City councilman and retired police officer. “You respond to a house but not a hospital? If you’re serving the person, you need to go where that person is,” says Clark, who promised to resume responding to health care facilities, even without an expansion of the office’s $1 million budget.

Clark contends one solution might be waiting awhile, giving family the chance to get there first and eliminating the need to respond. The initial response by one of 12 part-time investigators involves a $150 charge to the family. That’s a profit-maker because the average cost of the initial response is $60.

The public administrator’s mandated responsibility is handling probate for people with estates who die without a will or trust. The probate fees are handed over to the county’s general fund. In the last budget year, those fees generated almost $564,000, more than enough to hire extra staff if the fees stayed with the administrator’s office. But they don’t.

Cahill proudly notes that since he became public administrator in 2007, his office has secured and distributed more than $20 million to heirs and beneficiaries.

A bill draft being prepared at the state Legislature would consolidate the public administrator with the coroner’s office and make it one position appointed by the County Commission.

That would take selection of the administrator out of the hands of voters, who hardly know what the position does, until they come in contact with the office.

Here’s the best piece of advice I can share: Carry a card in your wallet with emergency contact information. Do it now.

It could save someone who cares about you a boatload of grief and save you from being cremated and stashed in the county crypt.

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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