This past Friday morning, news outlets across the country picked up an Associated Press story regarding Governor Parson’s October ouster of Missouri’s Gottcha Board. (For those not familiar with the Missouri State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors, the tag “Gottcha Board” was first given to the Board in 2020 by the Missouri Funeral Directors Association. Then later in 2021, the term was also adopted by the acting executive director of the Missouri Division of Professional Registration (Division).) While the article delves deeply in to the funeral home inspections that sparked the current controversy, there is much more to the Sweeny-Phillips story.
This funeral home first got into trouble with the Gottcha Board in 2016 when it failed to renew their seller and provider licenses. Over the span of two years, the funeral home ignored repeated demands from the Gottcha Board and eventually an administrative proceeding was initiated by the Board in 2018. The funeral home eventually agreed to two years’ probation and to comply with all the licensing requirements of Chapters 333 and 436. Prior to that agreement, the Division’s CIU inspections had not highlighted to the Board any problems at the funeral home.
With the 2 year probation about to expire, CIU inspectors were sent to Sweeney-Phillips on June 17, 2020 to determine whether the funeral home had complied with the terms of probation. The CIU inspectors confirmed that the funeral home still did not have either a seller or a provider license, and that the funeral director in charge had failed to renew his license. The CIU inspectors also reported that the funeral home had not retained (or obtained) authorizations to embalm or cremate. The Board wrote the funeral home on June 23rd seeking a response to the violations. The funeral home did not reply.
On July 27th, the Board sent its own inspector to the funeral home and found a multitude of violations that the CIU inspectors had missed, including the condition of the crematory chamber. The funeral home had 45 preneed contracts without a license. Two funeral home employees arranged and worked more than a hundred funerals without funeral director licenses. The funeral home had provided numerous cremations and embalmings without the required documented authorizations. All of these constituted violations of the funeral home’s probation agreement. (Click to access the Petition)
Despite the nickname given by the MFDEA, the Gottcha Board gives licensees an opportunity to explain themselves before disciplinary actions are pursued. But it was not until after the Board filed a lawsuit that the funeral home began to take corrective actions. The crematory was repaired and one of the employees obtained their funeral director license. However, the other employee who had acted as a funeral director for more than 50 arrangements had not obtained a license. Nor did the funeral home address its preneed violations.
Based on the preneed sales cited in the petition, we would estimate that Sweeney-Phillips had more than $300,000 in preneed sales since losing their preneed seller license. While the Gottcha Board wanted to determine if those funds went into trust and stayed there until the contracts were performed, the Division overruled the Board and decided to let the funeral home off. The Sweeney-Phillips lawsuit was dismissed November 30th. So much for the SB1 promises made to preneed consumers twelve years ago.
The MFDEA’s response to its membership was to suggest that the article is biased because the reporter was influenced by persons who are anti-Division and/or anti-Governor Parsons. It is obvious that the association attempted to spin the same yarn given to the Division, but the reporter would have no part of that. The Division took a smarter strategy and refused to comment. The Division has taken a similar defense to all the open records requests that we have made of it. But, that is for a future post.
If the comment section to the Post Dispatch’s website is a barometer, the Missouri funeral industry is taking a hit. Indirectly, the damage is self-inflicted. The Gottcha Board was attempting to do what it believed to be required for the protection of the funeral consumer. The Sweeney-Phillips case demonstrated that the Board needed its own inspectors to rout out serious problems. But, the MFDEA came up with the catchy “Gottcha Board” label, and complained to the Governor. Then when a new Division acting director was appointed, the MFDEA found a sympathetic ear. The rest is history.