End looms for perk known as 'ash cash'

Mid Central District Health Board chief executive Murray Georgel.
Mid Central District Health Board chief executive Murray Georgel.

Health boards are working to end a practice known among some doctors as "ash cash", which sees fees collected for issuing cremation certificates used for parties and pay-television.

The certificates take about 10 minutes to fill out and confirm if a body is safe to be cremated.

Doctors charge $70 for the certificates in the MidCentral Health region. The cash goes to a junior doctors' fund for "social events".

Several health boards do not charge for the certificates. Charges among those that do range from $5.75 at Christchurch Hospital to $90 in the Nelson-Marlborough region.

The Manawatu Standard asked MidCentral District Health Board chief executive Murray Georgel yesterday whether he condoned how the money from the certificates was being spent in the region.

"Historically [resident medical officers] charged for the issuing of death and cremation certificates," he replied in a written statement.

"Whilst this practice has decreased in recent years, it has come to the attention of district health boards (DHBs) that there is no uniform practice nationally."

He said boards were working with resident medical officers to ensure that charging ended.

Fairfax revealed yesterday that, nationally, thousands of dollars were collected annually by doctors for the certificates.

Some pocketed the money while others used it to pay for pay-television in the doctors' lounge. In an email obtained by the newspaper, Deborah Powell, national secretary of the Resident Doctors' Association, advised regional representatives that the perk may soon cease.

"We have been approached by the DHBs who . . . have received an [Official Information Act] request from the media concerning the payment of what is colloquially termed ash cash. All the DHBs now wish to stop payment," she wrote.

The cremation certificate fee is invoiced to funeral directors, who in turn pass it on to families of the dead person. It was historically necessary because home visits to confirm deaths were time-consuming. Now, however, 65 per cent of deaths occur in care, and doctors rarely leave hospitals to check bodies.

As a result, the ash-cash process has been deemed improper by several boards, and several of the larger ones - Capital & Coast, Auckland, Counties Manukau, and Waikato - refuse to charge it.

Peter Beauchamp, owner of Beauchamp Funeral Home, with mortuaries in Palmerston North, Feilding and Marton, was disappointed to learn where the cash was going.

"You probably would question where that [fee] is put. It should really go into the hospital coffers," he said.

"I suppose we knew in the back of our minds it was going into a fund for the doctors, but I thought it would have been an educational fund. I guess it's a little bit of a perk . . ."

Manawatu Standard