DHHS requests more money to fix medical examiner system

Posted September 29, 2014 5:57 p.m. EDT
Updated September 30, 2014 12:08 p.m. EDT

— State health officials told lawmakers Monday that they need about $6 million more a year to fix the medical examiner system, which has failed to meet minimum national standards for staffing, training and facilities.

Lou Turner, deputy section chief for the state Department of Health and Human Services, told lawmakers that the agency has been asking for more money and staff for a decade but lawmakers haven't listened.

"It did not get funded. It did not go forward," Turner said.

Monday's review panel was sparked by a series that ran earlier this year in The Charlotte Observer, which found problems with the state's medical examiner and autopsy system.

In addition to the extra $6 million per year, DHHS officials told lawmakers they need tens of millions of dollars in the next few years for larger morgues and labs and more staff to keep up with growing caseloads. Out of about 78,000 deaths a year in North Carolina, about 14 percent are looked into by a medical examiner. About 5 percent undergo autopsies. 

North Carolina is not accredited by the National Association of Medical Examiners. To win accreditation, the state would need more forensic pathologists, a comprehensive IT system to replace the current paper reports, upgrades to its three regional labs and a training program, DHHS officials said. 

Lawmakers say that's a hefty order. Sen. Tommy Tucker, R-Union, said the state is not in a cash situation to add a great deal of recurring expense.

"We’re going to hold you accountable to ask for what you need. You may not get it, but at least you will have asked," Tucker said. "You will have covered the responsibility that your charged with to make this structure work."

DHHS officials say the state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner has been losing money to budget cuts, and that's affecting its ability to function. The state spends less per capita on its system than any comparable state, and it pays less for outside help, too, they said. For example, an autopsy costs $2,813, but the state only pays hospitals $1,650.

State lawmakers gave the office $1 million extra in this year's budget. They plan to meet again next month to come up with recommendations for next year.

"Going through the last budget session, it was a challenge then, and it'll be a challenge to find this, but I think it's necessary funding we've got to find," said Rep. Mark Hollo, R-Alexander.