Shelly Witherspoon picked a lousy time to die.
The Cuyahoga Falls woman should have died between 6 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Those are the hours when the deceased get a free ride to the Summit County Medical Examiner’s office.
But Witherspoon had the temerity to stop living at about 6:45 p.m. on Oct. 2, so the six-mile journey from her apartment to the coroner’s office cost her next of kin $122.50.
Yes, you read that correctly: If she had had the foresight to die by 4:30, her estate would owe nothing.
How can that be?
Excellent question. So I asked it.
Jason Dodson, chief of staff for Summit County Executive Russ Pry, says that, until a couple of years ago, the medical examiner’s office would pick up corpses during business hours and subcontract with a private ambulance company for off-hours runs, and insurance would pay for the latter.
But then, he says, insurance companies started refusing to pay, arguing that transporting a dead body was not a health-care issue.
The county then faced two choices, Dodson says: Pay lots of money to staff the medical examiner’s office around the clock, or pass along the cost to the families of people who didn’t die when the coroner’s office was open.
“I could certainly see that’s not necessarily something that would make somebody happy,” he says, “but like many other tough decisions we’ve had to make, the finances are what they are here.”
Dodson says the county subsidizes the off-hours runs, paying $25,000 annually to Professional Funeral Services for up to 320 transports, or about $78 per run.
Well, that makes sense from an accounting viewpoint. But it makes no sense on a personal level.
Bob Williams, the significant other of the deceased woman’s sister, is fuming about the policy.
“It’s unconscionable,” he says. “You’re either doing a service for the people in the county or you’re not.”
Bingo. Either subsidize everyone equally or subsidize no one. Basing the bills on the time of death is absurd.
The mental state of the family was not helped by the in-your-face attitude copped in a Q-and-A sheet that accompanied the bill.
The mailing from the funeral company, sent to Witherspoon’s sister, Valerie Bloom, informed her that she was personally responsible for paying because the medical examiner’s office provided her name as the contact person.
And in answer to Question No. 3 — “Do I have to pay it?” — the company wrote, “This is a legitimate bill for the transport services that we provided on the mentioned date for the named person. Unpaid accounts will be sent to collections.”
Normally, when people die, bills of this sort are paid from the estate by the executor, who is often a different person than the one who initially contacts authorities when an unexpected death occurs. In those cases, according to the letter, “We are more than happy to forward the bill on to another person ... but please be aware that this will not stop the collections process.”
The owner of Falls-based Professional Funeral Services, Bob Norman, says that letter has been revised since Witherspoon’s sister received hers a couple of weeks ago. He says the new one states specifically that the estate is responsible, and if the recipient is not the executor, the recipient should forward it.
Which is what the letter should have said in the first place.
The distance from Witherspoon’s residence at Studio City Apartments to the medical examiner’s office on North Summit Street in Akron is only six or seven miles. But for billing purposes, that’s irrelevant. You don’t have to worry about where you die in Summit County, because no mileage charge is added. You only have to worry about when you die.
I was curious about what would happen if three or four or five people died during the proper hours but died at roughly the same time in different locations. Would the county make a series of runs and eventually collect them all, or would it ring up a private service?
Dodson’s response: “It is our policy not to respond to hypothetical questions.”
At the very least, the county could spell out its funky policy on the website. But on the medical examiner’s “frequently asked questions” page, the only financial information is this:
“There is no charge to the next of kin for an autopsy nor for any of the tests which may be conducted by the medical examiner’s office.”
Getting there is another story. An untold story.
Autopsies are a lot more common than you might think. Whenever someone dies who apparently was in good health, or dies in any suspicious or unusual manner, state law requires a trip to the medical examiner.
Last year, according to county spokeswoman Jill Skapin, private ambulances averaged about 22 runs to the medical examiner’s office per month. Transports by the county itself averaged 18 per month.
Witherspoon’s body was transported because, at age 55, her death was unexpected. (A ruling on the cause of death is still pending, but no foul play is suspected.)
She led an interesting life. A native of Cleveland, Witherspoon attended college in Indiana, then came back and worked at Sea World in Aurora, feeding sharks, swimming with dolphins and water skiing.
The Sea World job led her to Orlando, Fla., where she spent many years before heading back to her home state and the city where her mother and stepfather live.
In her final days, she was enrolled at Brown Mackie College, learning to become a veterinary technician.
“She loved animals, loved people and wanted to do her thing,” says Williams.
Her death at a relatively young age still stings the family deeply. And the odd, unexpected bill from the funeral service, though hardly astronomical, provided yet another kick in the pants that they simply didn’t need.
Bob Dyer can be reached at 330-996-3580 or email@example.com.