Local News

State Medical Examiner's Office Tries To Tackle Backlog Of Cases

Posted November 3, 2003 10:52 a.m. EST

— There is currently a backlog of cases in the state medical examiner's office and some families are forced to wait to begin the process of closure.

When a piece of equipment breaks down or a lab technician resigns, the unfinished cases pile up for the state medical examiner's office in Chapel Hill.

"It's problematic, and our goal is to try and get these cases resolved as quickly as possible," said Chief Medical Examiner Dr. John Butts.

Steven Lyons, manager of Lea Funeral Home in Raleigh, said an incomplete death certificate means families cannot settle estates, cannot work out social security details and cannot collect insurance money.

"A lot of the business aspects of death and dying are looming out there when it takes the death certificate so long to be completed," he said.

Lyons tells some families to prepare to wait six to nine months for closure.

"Initially, it's shock that it takes so long, then that shock turns to anger," he said.

The backlog swelled earlier this year when the Chief Medical Examiner's Office lost three toxicologists in three months, yet the demand for drug tests keeps rising.

"You can always do a better job. I'd certainly like to do a better job. I'd like for things to be resolved quickly," Butts said.

Another cause for delay is when doctors in other parts of the state do not send in their tissue and drug samples to the main lab in a timely manner. Officials said that can also add to the backlog.

Butts said most of the toxicology jobs that were vacant for months have since been filled. He said his staff is slowly chipping away at the backlog of unexplained deaths.