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Governor Signs Bill in Bethel to Ease Autopsy Burden

By | July 18, 2014

Governor Parnell signs HB 301, which eases the burdens on families for required autopsies. L to R: Alaska Medical Examiner Dr. Gary Zientek, Rep. Bob Herron, Governor Sean Parnell, YKHC President and CEO Dan Winkelman, and Senator Lyman Hoffman. (Photo by Dean Swope, KYUK - Bethel)

Governor Parnell signs HB 301, which eases the burdens on families for required autopsies. L to R: Alaska Medical Examiner Dr. Gary Zientek, Rep. Bob Herron, Governor Sean Parnell, YKHC President and CEO Dan Winkelman, and Senator Lyman Hoffman. (Photo by Dean Swope, KYUK – Bethel)

Governor Sean Parnell was in Bethel Thursday to sign a bill intended to help rural families navigate the process of having an autopsy done hundreds of miles away in Anchorage.

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When someone in western Alaska dies in suspicious or unusual circumstances, the state is required to conduct an autopsy or exam in Anchorage. Sometimes in that time of stress, family members are making decisions without good information. In a packed room of regional leaders at the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation Thursday, Governor Parnell signed a bill into law intended to make that stressful time easier.

“This is about dignity and respect for our lost loved ones, as well as the dignity and respect of the families that are involved,” said Parnell.

The bill makes explicit that families can choose to have the body returned directly to them, instead of a funeral home. Bethel Representative Bob Herron sponsored the bill.

“It’s hard on the family because they want closure, they want it done right. And in the past, it’s to no fault of anybody, but the state appeared to be promoting the funeral home business,” said Herron.

Part of that was the documentation for families, which has been changed. Supporters cite stories of people getting stuck with large funeral home bills they couldn’t pay. That’s led to some funeral homes holding the body hostage until they get paid.

Nicholas Hoover is the Social Services Director for Association of Village Council Presidents and works with families in need. He says good communication hasn’t always happened in the past and points to a recent 7-thousand dollar funeral home bill.

“If a family isn’t prepared, they can tack on services like embalming, it’s toxic, and it’s not traditional custom to have a body embalmed. Cosmetics is another…traditionally the family is the one who dresses the body and prepares it for a funeral,” said Hoover.

The law also allows for the possibility of some exams to be done outside of urban areas in a hub like Bethel with video equipment. That could cut down on the approximately 900 cases the medical examiners see annually.

Dr. Gary Zientek is Alaska’s Chief Medical Examiner. He says there are no plans yet to establish a rural examination program and the requirements for a facility and training are steep.

“…Photographs and fingerprints, we have to do a lot of documentation it would be a lot of training. It would probably be possible, but it requires a lot of work before we do that,” said Zientek.

The law would pay for embalming if required by an air carrier and could return the body to places besides the exact location of the death. The Governor also signed resolutions in support of Alaska’s role in national arctic policy and of Recover Alaska’s efforts to reduce excessive alcohol consumption. He spoke at the Bethel Chamber of Commerce.

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