The Observer reports on the blatant failures of North Carolina’s medical examiner system. Lawmakers and the public are aghast. Committees are formed, solutions are debated, pledges are made to fix it. And then: Nothing happens.
2001? Or 2015?
Legislators in coming weeks need to prevent history from repeating itself. Sen. Jeff Tarte, a Republican from Cornelius, has taken a strong first step toward making sure it doesn’t.
After an Observer series 14 years ago about North Carolina’s flawed death investigations, leading legislators vowed to overhaul the system. But they didn’t, and last year the Observer gave an updated but equally grim portrayal of how N.C. families are let down by the state during the most anguishing times of their lives.
Medical examiners are overworked, undertrained and underpaid. They fail to go to the death scene 90 percent of the time and fail even to look at the body in one out of nine cases. The result: Inaccurate findings, life insurance payouts denied and people literally on the brink of getting away with murder.
Tarte’s bill, Senate Bill 395, proposes a number of vital changes. It would hire more full-time forensic pathologists, medical examiners and death investigators. It would require death investigators to go to the scene. It would limit the number of autopsies one person could do in a year and require continuing education and national accreditation. And it would raise the pay to part-timers for investigations from $100 to $250 and for autopsies from $1,000 to $2,800.
Those changes address the status quo’s biggest flaws: Too few death investigators with too little time and too little training being paid too little to do a good job.
You would think such a bill would be embraced by legislators and the Department of Health and Human Services. It provides a specific solution to a fundamental problem, after all.
But with a price tag of some $15 million to $30 million, the reaction has been tepid. Tarte recommends that DHHS cover that by moving money around within its existing budget. He points out that it’s a tiny portion of the agency’s $19 billion budget (including federal money).
DHHS, in turn, recoils at what would amount to an unfunded mandate.
They’re both right. So they need to figure out a compromise this session. As an untold number of N.C. families can attest, a repeat of history is unacceptable. After years of failing at a core service, it’s past time for the state to fix it.