Saturday, July 30, 2016
[Los Angeles County] Shortage of talent, strapped resources, slow search for LA County coroner
Blog note: this article references a recent grand jury report.
Some progress has been made in processing autopsies and toxicology results at the Los Angeles County coroner’s office, where the head of the department abruptly resigned three months ago because of the number of bodies that had piled up, heavy workloads and staff shortages, according to a recent report.
The report, presented to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday by the chief executive office, was in response to recommendations made to alleviate the backlog at the coroner’s department. Some improvements so far include adding a few more criminologists, placing some employees on a higher pay scale, and launching a study to learn how to retain staff.
But a nationwide shortage of specialists has made the hiring process slow since April, when a Los Angeles County civil grand jury report found that almost two dozen more investigators, forensic pathologists and toxicologists were needed to handle the case load at the Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner’s office. As a result, the department’s accreditation is in jeopardy.
“What problems currently exist at the (Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner) can be attributed to too few budgeted positions, including direct and indirect support personnel, worker fatigue and burnout, and to salary constraints that inhibit recruitment and retention of qualified professionals,” according to the 24-page grand jury report titled “Who cares for the dead when the dead don’t vote?”
The workload and staff shortage prompted Los Angeles County Medical Examiner-Coroner Dr. Mark Fajardo to resign in March, after he told reporters the backlog of 40 to 50 bodies a day to be processed was “nuts.” Fajardo said 180 bodies had piled up in the county morgue and toxicology tests were taking six months to complete because he couldn’t get additional funding from the Board of Supervisors to hire more employees.
Supervisors approved a $28 billion budget in June that includes $1.6 million in funding and 12 new positions for the Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner to address the backlog.
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The coroner’s office investigates about 10,000 of 22,000 to 25,000 deaths each year and performs 4,000 autopsies annually, sometimes about 30 a day.
Although that’s about the same as medical examiners offices in New York City and Chicago, those agencies employ more people, the civil grand jury report found.
“We’re continuing to handle the cases,” Ed Winter, Los Angeles County’s assistant chief coroner, said Friday. “We’ve requested some additional funds and positions and the board has granted some of them. People don’t realize we’re the busiest coroner’s office in the nation, if not the world.”
In the meantime, Dr. Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran, the former head of the coroner’s office, was rehired on an interim basis to oversee the department. Sathyavagiswaran had served as the coroner for 21 years when he retired in 2013.
County officials have launched a nationwide search to find a permanent director, but would not say Friday how many candidates have applied for the position.
“The recruitment will remain open for accepting resumes and letters of interest until the position is filled,” according to a statement from county officials.
A shortage of pathologists is affecting counties large and small in California and the United States, many experts have said.
About 40 forensic pathologists graduate from fellowship programs each year, which is just enough to keep up with the retirement rate, according to the National Association of Medical Examiners.
July 17, 2016
Los Angeles Daily News
By Susan Abram