Crisis In The State Medical Examiner's Office
Tuesday, May 23rd 2006, 9:39 AM CDT
The state medical examiner's office is struggling with inadequate staffing to catch up on a backlog of investigations.
Oklahoma's chief medical examiner says he's desperate for more resources and he's asking for help from state lawmakers.
News on 6 anchor Tami Marler investigates.
Tulsa Police officer Gene Watkins says so far in 2006, Tulsa detectives have been called 243 times to sites where someone was dead on arrival. 31 were homicides. "We've never had to wait this long. Usually it's the next day when we get a result."
On one case, investigators can tell what happened, but they're waiting for the state medical examiner's office to rule on a cause and manner of death, a wait that's getting longer and longer. "Through our training we can tell that it's a homicide but you have to have the doctor come through with his experience and training which is vastly greater than ours, and they come through and say, 'yes, it is a homicide.'"
According to the state medical examiner, they investigated more than 15,000 deaths last year. Only 15 percent of them were homicides. The ME's office also investigates accidental deaths and issue death certificates so that family members can settle their loved ones' estates. When searchers found the body of 18 year-old Jarret Clark, his parents were told pathology tests would take twelve weeks, a process that used to take half that time.
It's just one of more than 800 autopsies the medical examiner's Tulsa office is expected to conduct from 15 counties this year, with only two pathologists. That's nearly twice the national average.
According to the chief medical examiner, in two years, they went from 11,628 deaths to 15,423 and lost two pathologists. In 2003 they performed nearly 1,500 autopsies, last year, 1,800. Testing a body for toxins went from an average of 17 days to more than 33. Testing body tissues went from 3 days to 90. While their workload increased by a quarter, the chief medical examiner says state funding increased 8 percent. "When a family's thinking that someone's been poisoned or murdered, before you even can do your investigation, you're waiting 12 weeks before you get the results."
It's not just families of homicide victims who have to wait. Insurance companies and bill collectors require a death certificate, in order to settle a deceased loved one's financial affairs. "That" comes from the medical examiner's office, which expects to investigate 20,000 deaths this year. By this fall, the state medical examiner says complete autopsies could take up to six months if they don't get more funding.