News10NBC Investigates: Cancer-stricken widow can’t get late husband’s death certificate to access life insurance

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. – A widow fighting cancer in Chili says she cannot file a claim for her late husband’s life insurance policy because she can’t get a death certificate from the Monroe County Medical Examiner’s Office.

She can’t get the certificate because the ME’s office is still doing the toxicology report on him and these days, those reports take up to 12 months.

“He was a Christian and he loved the Lord. Loved the Lord,” said Charlene McRay-Clark.
Charlene and Phillip Clark were together for 35 years, married for 13. In January, Clark went to his late mother’s home in Rochester and when he stopped answering his phone, Charlene went to check on him with her niece, a registered nurse.

“And she went and opened up the door and screamed dial 911,” Charlene said.

Clark was on life support at Strong Hospital for more than a week and the decision to take him off came down on Charlene. Now, she remembers saying no to an autopsy but she does not recall any conversation or any decision when it came to ordering a toxicology report.
UR Medicine says if patients die at the hospital and meet certain criteria they are required to notify the Medical Examiner’s office. The ME’s office orders the toxicology test.

The dilemma for Charlene is that those tests take 12 months.

Chief Investigative Reporter, Berkeley Brean: “So in order for you to make a life insurance claim, your life insurance company says you need a death certificate.”

Charlene McRay-Clark: “Yes.”

Berkeley Brean: “But you can’t get the death certificate until the toxicology report is done.”

Charlene McRay-Clark: “Right.”

Berkeley Brean: “And where does that leave you now?”

Charlene McRay-Clark: “Basically broke.”
Charlene says doctors told her her husband died from an apparent heart attack followed by a series of mini-strokes.

Otherwise, Charlene says he was healthy.

The county says the ratio of pathologists to cases causes the 12-month wait. A news report out of Pittsburgh in April says there is a nationwide shortage of forensic staff. That’s one reason why Charlene is waiting.

“I would like to see and hope that other people don’t go through what I’m going through,” she said. “Because it’s a struggle.”

The county asked Charlene to have the insurance company contact the ME’s office and maybe a discussion can get her access to the life insurance. As of Tuesday, there is no movement on that.

Charlene was diagnosed with breast cancer in November. She finished her chemotherapy regimen and surgery is next. She blames what she called “chemo-brain” on why she can’t recall any conversations about toxicology reports.