Opening statement of DHHS Secretary Aldona Wos

Thank you, Mr. Chairman for inviting us today.

The issue of the North Carolina Medical Examiner System is very near to my heart because I firmly believe that this critical and complicated issue is a fundamental obligation of state government towards it citizens.

First and foremost for the benefit of families who have lost loved ones.

This system allows them to move one step nearer to closure in their lives.

This is also a public health issue. The information that is provided by the Medical Examiner system is important for us to keep the citizens of our state safe.

And let us not forget, even though it a small percentage of the work that is done in the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, the work that is done there is critical to the justice system.

Four decades ago, when North Carolina moved to more professional, centralized system, we were seen as one of the national leaders. But unfortunately, the system has been ignored and diminished. It has been chronically understaffed and underfunded.

The challenges that we see presently in the Medical Examiner system are not new issues. A report from 2001 discussed many of the same challenges we are facing today.

But unfortunately after that report was issued, nothing was done.

I’ve heard from former and current employees that this administration, compared to decades past, has put the most attention and commitment that they can remember towards improving our system.

In the short amount of time we have been here, we implemented changes and are already seeing results.

We’ve stabilized our regional system that was at risk of falling part. We aggressively pushed for hiring flexibility to fill key pathologist positions that were long left vacant. We’re also improving quality assurance efforts.

We’ve already reduced caseloads significantly.

With the support of the Governor and General Assembly, we received an additional $1 million in funding, which equals a nearly 25% increase in state appropriations for the Office of Chief Medical Examiner.

We’ve started down the much needed path to improve training and education.

We will hear from our experts about our vision for the path forward.

I encourage all of us today to take the opportunity to learn from these experts on a very, very complex topic.

With the well-known challenges of understaffing and underfunding of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, we must appreciate that despite all the challenges, the system is still working because of the commitment of the people in Office of the Chief Medical Examiners.

They have worked incredible hours to keep up with the workload. They are truly public servants and we should all be grateful to the critical job that they do.

Our Chief Medical Examiner, Dr. Radisch, is an excellent example of that commitment. You should know that during the terrible ice storm that we had in Raleigh this year, Dr. Radisch spent the night in her office because she wanted to ensure she would be instantly available to meet the needs of our state. This is true commitment.

Dr. Radisch has served as Chief Medical Examiner since 2010. Dr. Radisch attended UNC-CH for her undergraduate degree; she earned her medical degree from Bowman Gray School of Medicine of Wake Forest University. She did her pathology residency and forensic pathology fellowship at UNC Hospitals and the NC OCME. She also has a Master's in Public Health from UNC-CH School of Public Health. Dr. Radisch has served as a full-time board-certified forensic pathologist with the OCME since December 1987. She has served as the Medical Director and Chair of the NC Child Fatality Prevention Team since January 1999. She is the Director of the UNC-CH School of Medicine Forensic Pathology Program and Forensic Pathology Fellowship. She is also a Fellow of both the National Association of Medical Examiners and American Academy of Forensic Sciences. In addition to her current leadership responsibilities, she conducts approximately 200 autopsies a year.

Dr. Lou Turner has been the Section Chief for the State Laboratory of Public Health and the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner for the past 8 years. Her undergraduate degree is from Meredith College and she earned her Masters and Doctorate's in Public Health in Laboratory Practice from the UNC-CH School of Public Health. She is board-certified as a high-complexity laboratory director and served as the State Laboratory Director between 1995-2005. She served as the Chairman for the national Clinical Laboratory Improvement Advisory Committee (CLIAC) from 2005-2008.

In addition to these two highly qualified subject matter experts, implementing the desperately needed changes in the Office of Chief Medical Examiner has been a department-wide commitment. Therefore, I have asked my leadership to be engaged – Rear Admiral Penny Slade-Sawyer, Dr. Cummings, and my Chief of Staff Mark Payne have all been highly involved in our efforts to improve the Office of Chief Medical Examiner.

I would also like to thank the media for their dedication to bringing public attention to this important and complicated issue. Our team will discuss key issues raised by media reports throughout our entire presentations.

The challenges in North Carolina are well-recognized and have been studied for years. We are very grateful for the opportunity to present to you the path forward and I truly hope this year, we will work collaboratively to create the sustainable medical examiner system that North Carolina deserves.

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