Help with COVID-19 burial expenses? NJ lawmakers push for $20M fund

It would help ‘to make a difficult time just a little easier,’ said Sen. Ron Rice, who is behind the measure
Credit: (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)
File photo

On the eve of the one-year anniversary of New Jersey’s first COVID-19 death, legislators moved to provide $20 million to help needy people with unreimbursed burial expenses for those who died from the novel coronavirus.

“Almost everyone in New Jersey knows at least one person that has passed away due to COVID-19,” said Sen. Ron Rice (D-Essex), sponsor of the legislation creating a state COVID-19 burial assistance program. “These unexpected deaths have not only brought sadness to loved ones but have added on to the economic hardships under which many are already suffering.”

Rice and several Assembly members introduced measures in May to reimburse those who had a loved one die of COVID-19 and who have expenses not covered by insurance or other assistance. On Tuesday, the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee approved Rice’s bill (S-2487) in a bipartisan vote with no objections.

The pandemic has killed 23,590 New Jerseyans as of Tuesday and a NJ Spotlight News analysis of data from the State Health Assessment Data system found that COVID-19 and related illnesses surpassed heart disease as the top cause of death in New Jersey from the first death on March 10 through the end of 2020.

New Jersey continues to have the highest COVID-19 death rate in the nation — 265,000 per 100,000 residents. Early on, as the virus raged through long-term care facilities, the virus was killing more than 8% of those known to be infected. Today, that has dropped to about 3%.

COVID-19 has had an outsize impact on the state’s Black and Hispanic populations, in part, experts say, because they tend to be less well-off due to structural inequities in society and they more often hold lower-paying frontline essential-worker jobs that put them at greater risk of contracting the disease. One-third of all Latino and 20% of Black residents who died in New Jersey last year succumbed to the virus or related conditions.

Average cost: $11,000

The average cost of a traditional funeral burial in New Jersey is more than $11,000, with cremation costs about $4,300, according to the website finder.com.

Sen. Richard Codey (D-Essex), who owns a funeral home, abstained from voting on the bill, but said there is a “strong need for this,” particularly within minority communities because of the impact of the virus on them.

The bill would create the 2020 New Jersey Burial Assistance Program within the Department of Human Services specifically for COVID-related deaths. It would charge the DHS commissioner with determining what funeral expenses are eligible, establishing a maximum amount of assistance per applicant, and create a formula for distributing funds based on household income and need. Only expenses not covered by other sources would be eligible for reimbursement.

Applicants would be required to submit documentation, including death certificate or official statement attributing the death to COVID-19, an itemized funeral bill, proof of burial insurance, an accounting of household income and assets at the time of death and proof of the applicant’s New Jersey residency.

No details yet

The human services department has an existing program that gives funeral assistance to the indigent, providing a maximum of $2,770 and capping the total amount that can be spent, according to the New Jersey State Funeral Directors Association. Codey said those amounts have not been updated in at least a decade. That aid is for any death, while the new legislation would provide help only for COVID-19-related deaths. Because the DHS commissioner would have the power to structure the reimbursement program, it is unclear what its financial parameters would be.

Rice said providing at least some financial assistance to those who lost loved ones would help as people continue to struggle through the pandemic.

“This bill will alleviate some of the expenses associated with planning a funeral service, helping to make a difficult time just a little easier,” Rice said.

The legislation requires available federal funds be used before state dollars. The governor’s office typically does not take positions on pending legislation, but Gov. Phil Murphy has vetoed a number of bills that have sought to provide varying amounts of aid to businesses and others impacted by the pandemic. New Jersey stands to receive billions of dollars from the new fedral stimulus package if finally signed by President Joe Biden.

Tuesday’s committee vote was just the first legislative action on the measure. It would need to pass both houses of the Legislature before reaching Murphy.