COLUMBIA — Some funeral homes in South Carolina are delaying cremations because of a problem in a new state computer system that's left them unable to get a death certificate, complicating plans of grieving families, funeral directors said Tuesday.
Amid the backlog, one of the Midlands' biggest funeral homes has rented a refrigerated trailer to ensure the deceased are "cared for properly" while it awaits the paperwork.
A second mobile mortuary might be necessary if cremations can't proceed soon, said Greg Dunbar, manager of Dunbar Funeral Home, which has three locations in Columbia.
In South Carolina, cremations require a permit from the local coroner. To get that, the funeral home must provide a certified death certificate from the state's public health agency, along with other documentation. Not having a printed copy of the death certificate puts families' plans on hold.
The issue is a Jan. 11 systems switch at the Department of Health and Environmental Control's Office of Vital Statistics. The software overhaul was supposed to "strengthen security and enhance the overall user experience," while altering what birth and death certificates look like, according to a Dec. 18 news release about the impending change.
The upgrade was initially set to occur a week earlier, but DHEC delayed the launch to allow for further testing. Still, the rollout came with "sporadic errors" the agency is still working with its vendor to resolve. Non-working security codes are primarily what's preventing the finalization of death certificates, said DHEC spokeswoman Cristi Moore.
The issue isn't stopping traditional burials, as those don't require a death certificate.
But "100 percent of families we serve are experiencing some delays," said Rep. Mark Smith, R-Charleston, owner of McAlister-Smith Funeral and Cremation, which has six locations in Charleston, Berkeley and Orangeburg counties.
That's because a certified death certificate is needed for families to start the post-death legalities, such as probate court and life insurance. Smith declined to estimate how many families his locations are helping through the delays.
"We've been blessed" to not need to buy or rent any additional space, Smith said.
By Wednesday, Dunbar Funeral alone could have more than two dozen families waiting on a death certificate, its manager said, noting appointments with families continue.
Normally, his locations' indoor refrigeration capabilities are sufficient. But the rental became necessary starting last Friday, he said, because of the unfortunate combination of being unable to get a death certificate from DHEC and an uptick in deaths generally, whether from COVID-19 or something else.
He declined to estimate how soon a second rental would be necessary.
"We’ve had refrigeration in our funeral homes for years. Of course, they are reaching capacity," he said. "We’re in the process of trying to make sure we provide the care we ensure families we provide for their loved ones."
DHEC hopes all problems are solved by the weekend.
By Wednesday afternoon, DHEC intends to have a hotline up and running specifically to help the system's users resolve security code issues, which will be staffed around the clock for several days. A separate phone number will be available for help navigating other issues with the new system, Moore said.
"When the issues involving the PIN numbers are resolved, families will be able to obtain death certificates in a timely manner and funeral homes will not experience delays in getting cremation permits," she said late Tuesday.
State Rep. John King, director of Christopher King's Funeral Home in Chester, said DHEC's new system is not bad. It should even make things easier once people have the hang of it, but there should have been a phase-in period and training, he said.
"Now the kinks are not worked out, and we can't print death certificates," said the Rock Hill Democrat, adding his small business is waiting on one printout.
King plans to seek state reimbursement for funeral homes like Dunbar that have had to spend money on refrigerator trucks and other equipment.
The timing of DHEC's system changeover has exacerbated the problems statewide, said Brad Evans, president of the state Funeral Directors Association.
"Whenever you have a brand-new system and a pandemic going on, it’s never a good time for major change," said the owner of Harris Funeral Home and Cremation Services in Abbeville.
The massive state agency tasked with responding to the world's worst health crisis in a century has a variety of other functions, which it's managing without a permanent director since June.
The timing was dictated by the Jan. 12 end of Adobe Flash, computer software used in filing South Carolina death certificates, Moore said.
But the expiration should have come as no surprise. Adobe first warned users 3 ½ years ago that Flash was on its way out. It's unclear why DHEC didn't upgrade its system sooner.
The agency's system is used by doctors, funeral home directors and coroners. Ideally, all users' information, including licensing numbers and doctors' electronic signatures, would have transferred seamlessly, Evans said.
But computer overhauls are rarely ever smooth, especially in the middle of a crisis diverting users' attention, Evans said, adding he believes many doctors were too overwhelmed dealing with COVID-19 to even see DHEC's emailed notification.
Some regions of the state were able to resume printing death certificates last week, he said.
The problems seem to be worse in urban areas, where there are large hospitals with lots of doctors, he said, adding he was able to pick up two death certificates Tuesday morning from his local health office in Greenwood.
"It has caused some confusion. It's caused frustration. It has stopped the flow of things," Evans said. "It's a multifaceted problem."
But he did not blame the Vital Statistics division.
"They're doing all they can to repair everyone's issues. It's just not happening in a very quick way," he said. "They're really trying hard. Today, this year, is not a good time to be transferring systems but they didn’t have a choice."