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Legislative panel set to probe NC medical examiners

North Carolina’s investigations of infant deaths are dependent on one of the nation’s most poorly funded medical examiner systems.

The state pays medical examiners just $100 per case to investigate suspicious deaths. It requires no training and rarely punishes them when they break the rules.

An Observer series published in May found that medical examiners regularly close cases without following accepted practices. They rarely visit death scenes. And in one of every nine cases, they don’t even examine the bodies.

That means infant deaths don’t get the extra scrutiny they deserve, experts said.

In response to the series, lawmakers increased funding to the state medical examiner’s office and created a study group to review the system.

A nine-member legislative panel – the Medical Examiner Subcommittee – will analyze whether changes are necessary in medical examiner pay, oversight, training and other areas.

The group will research the pros and cons of keeping the state medical examiner’s office centralized in Raleigh versus opening regional medical examiner offices, according to a Sept. 3 letter written by three legislative leaders – Sen. Ralph Hise, R.-Mitchell, and Reps. Justin Burr, R-Stanly, and Mark Hollo, R.-Alexander.

The state’s medical examiner system relies mostly on full-time doctors and nurses who perform death investigations as a side job.

The Observer found that other states spend far more than North Carolina on their systems, in many cases requiring medical examiners to get training and visit death scenes.

Nationally, states and counties spent an average of $1.76 per capita on their death investigation systems, according to a 2007 survey by the National Association of Medical Examiners. North Carolina spends less than half that – about 84 cents per capita.

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