N.C. Medical Examiners

State: We’re improving death investigations

Gov. Pat McCrory is asking lawmakers for an additional $1 million to fix problems in the way the state investigates suspicious deaths.

The request came as the Observer concluded an investigation into the N.C. medical examiner's office, raising questions about the accuracy of thousands of death rulings.

Among the proposals:

• Build a training program for medical examiners, who are currently not required to get training.



• Increase the fee paid to examiners from $100 to $250 per case. Counties pay for most of those fees.



• Increase funding to three regional autopsy centers, including the Mecklenburg County Medical Examiner's Office.



• Expand funding for transportation and supplies to conduct autopsies and toxicology testing.



The proposals outlined in the governor’s May 13 budget are “much-needed steps to address longstanding issues,” said a spokesman for the state Department of Health and Human Services. The department oversees the medical examiner’s office.

The state medical examiner’s system came under heavy criticism last year following the carbon-monoxide deaths of three guests at a Boone hotel.

DHHS Secretary Dr. Aldona Wos subsequently ordered changes based on recommendations of a 2001 task force, which called for mandatory training and better death-scene investigations. The task force followed an Observer investigative series, which documented problems, including the failure by medical examiners to detect at least five homicides.

DHHS persuaded lawmakers last year to increase autopsy fees as well as salaries for forensic pathologists – steps to help them stabilize regional autopsy centers and attract and retain the doctors who perform autopsies.

Department staffers give Wos credit for improving death investigations. Wos has declined repeated requests for interviews.

Ames Alexander, Gavin Off and Elizabeth Leland

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