A legislative committee will meet Monday with North Carolina health officials to examine ways the state can better investigate suspicious deaths.
Rep. Mark Hollo, a Republican from Taylorsville, chairs a committee overseeing the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services and a subcommittee reviewing the medical examiner’s office.
Hollo said he called the meeting to learn what the state medical examiner’s office needs to become a top-tier program.
The office has struggled in recent years with overworked pathologists and medical examiners who fail to perform basic investigative steps.
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“It’s not going to be a ‘go after them and beat them up’ type thing,” Hollo said. “We want to find out what resources they need to be excellent.”
A five-part Observer investigation published this year found that North Carolina medical examiners routinely take shortcuts when investigating suspicious, violent and accidental deaths. It showed:
• Medical examiners don’t go to deaths scenes in 90 percent of the cases they investigate.
• They violate a state requirement to view the bodies in 1 of every 9 deaths.
• They miss even more steps when an elderly person dies. Since 2001, more than 40 percent of the state’s counties went at least three years without a single autopsy on a person 75 or older.
After the series, the General Assembly asked an independent research unit to examine ways to improve the system. The legislature’s Program Evaluation Division should wrap up its study and recommendations in early 2015, said director John Turcotte.
Legislators also approved an additional $1 million for the medical examiner’s office. The money represents a roughly 24 percent increase in state funding for the system.
Sen. Jeff Tarte, R-Mecklenburg, is a member of the oversight committee. He said the state might have to spend more to fix the medical examiner’s office.
“What we need to do is find out what resources are required to do the job properly and then fund them,” Tarte said. “Can we solve this with a VW Bug or do we need a fleet of Suburbans?”
Tarte said he was concerned that medical examiners, who are tasked with determining the manner in which someone died, are treated largely as volunteers. Most are full-time doctors or nurses who investigate deaths during their off hours and are paid $100 per case.
Such a situation, Tarte said, “lends itself to a mixed bag of results.”
He said problems plaguing the medical examiner’s office seem straight-forward. The system needs proper staffing, funding and policies, he said.
The Observer’s investigation found that staffing concerns have forced pathologists to perform more autopsies annually than national safe practices recommend.
The newspaper also found that the state doesn’t have the money to train all medical examiners. And it doesn’t require examiners to visit death scenes, even in homicide cases.
“I can’t imagine the status quo being acceptable,” Tarte said.