Monday, April 24, 2017
[Los Angeles County] LA County coroner cuts body backlog, but request for more funding rejected
Blog note: this article references a Los Angeles County grand jury report on the coroner’s office.
A year after the Los Angeles County coroner abruptly resigned amid a backlog of bodies to be examined and hundreds of pending toxicology reports, some progress has been made inside one of the busiest morgues in the nation. However, the department’s request for additional funding was rejected Monday when the county released its proposed $30 billion budget.
In March, 2016, 180 bodies were waiting to be processed. That number has now been cut in half, according to coroner spokesman Ed Winter.
On Friday, about 80 bodies were awaiting examination, with 17 scheduled for autopsies, Winter said. The number of toxicology reports also has been reduced. Last year, 2,400 reports were pending compared with 945 now.
By this summer, 90 percent of the cases will have toxicology reports completed within 90 days, said Dr. Christopher Rogers, acting chief medical examiner-coroner in response to a Southern California News Group request for information.
Several factors have helped make a difference including staffing, Rogers said, and existing staff working more than 20,000 hours of overtime. The department also has been helped by contracting toxicology testing to the National Medical Services, which has labs across the country, and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, which oversees that county’s medical examiner’s office.
“We have achieved a significant reduction in our laboratory backlog and implementation of safety measures to ensure that the workload does not reach critical backlog status again,” Rogers said.
In addition, an active search for a new medical examiner continues, he said.
The department came under scrutiny when Medical Examiner-Coroner Dr. Mark Fajardo resigned abruptly in March 2016. At the time, he told reporters he left because it was common to have 40 to 50 bodies waiting to be processed and the backlog of bodies was “nuts.” In addition, it was taking six months for toxicology reports to be completed. The backlog in the toxicology lab meant the coroner couldn’t make a ruling on cases, so they remained open, affecting families.
Fajardo returned to his old job as Riverside County’s chief forensic pathologist, where he earned $227,190 in total pay and benefits in 2012 before he came to Los Angeles County, which paid him $426,907 in 2014 on his first full year at the job. He did not return requests for comment.
But a 24-page grand jury report backed up his claims, placing the blame on Los Angeles County’s lack of funding.
“The Board of Supervisors has provided inadequate resources to support the stated significant needs of the (Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner),” according to the report titled “Who Cares for the Dead When the Dead Don’t Vote?”
“If these issues are not addressed, DMEC’s accreditation may likely be withdrawn during 2016,” according to the report.
The department received provisional accreditation in October by the National Association of Medical Examiners, Rogers said.
MORE FUNDING REJECTED
But despite the grand jury’s warning, the county’s executive on Monday recommended $38 million in its proposed budget for the 2017-2018 fiscal year, or $57,000 less than the current fiscal year. The proposed amount is also about $5 million less than requested by the medical-examiner’s office. A response by the medical-examiner’s office was unavailable Monday, though funding may change as the budget moves through public hearings and deliberations until it is finalized in late June.
Despite the funding challenges, L.A. County CEO Sachi Hamai says things are improving.
“We are making good progress with the coroner’s office,” she said during a Monday press conference to discuss the county’s overall proposed $30 billion budget. “Several positions were given to (the acting chief), and we’re working closely with that department to ensure his needs are filled.”
In March 2016, the Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner had 229 positions with 26 vacancies. At least 32 people have since been hired, Rogers said. In addition to positions opening up due to retirements, funding approved by the Board of Supervisors —about $2.5 million in September — allowed the department to expand the number of positions to 253.
Rogers said the department is hopeful that the vacant position of coroner’s investigator trainer will be filled soon. There were 979 applicants, of which 485 were qualified to take the exam, he said.
Last year, the medical examiner had asked for more tests on 1,346 bodies, known as deferred cases. Currently, there are 1,198, but Rogers anticipates those tests to be completed faster.
“We have achieved a significant reduction in our laboratory backlog and implementation of safety measures to ensure that the workload does not reach critical backlog status again,” he added. “We are confident that the backlog will be completely resolved within the next month.”
But the department still faces challenges, Rogers acknowledged, including filling what he called critical vacancies for senior criminologists, investigators and physician pathologists. In addition, the process to find a permanent chief medical examiner continues.
“Although the department has made strides in hiring staff and addressing backlogs, we still have work ahead,” Rogers noted. “We continue to experience challenges in filling some specialized positions.”
Last fall, when the board allocated the additional $2.5 million, then-Supervisor Michael Antonovich requested ongoing updates, and Supervisor Kathryn Barger remains just as concerned, said her spokesman, Tony Bell.
“Supervisor Barger is very concerned that we continue to make the medical examiner’s office one that is fully funded and providing a very important service to the community,” Bell said “We are looking at the budgetary aspects of the operation and working with the CEO to initiate improvements in personnel and facilities.”
Of the 60,000 to 80,000 deaths each year in Los Angeles County, about 20,000 to 25,000 are referred to the Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner. Up to 9,000 bodies are examined closely. There are 4,000 autopsies annually, sometimes about 30 a day. Although that’s about the same as the medical examiner’s offices in New York City and Chicago, those agencies employ more people, according to the grand jury report.
Bobbie Asano, a resident of Tarrytown, New York, said she experienced the L.A. County backlog last summer, when her 69-year-old brother was found dead outside his home near the Baldwin Hills area. Police suspected foul play, and his body was taken to the morgue. But it took six weeks for the coroner’s office to positively identify him and determine his cause of death: arteriosclerosis.
In the meantime, Asano said she couldn’t make final arrangements and her brother’s home was robbed three times and vandalized as Asano waited for the death certificate so she could move ahead with selling his property.
“I couldn’t do anything until it was resolved,” Asano said.
While she understood that the department was short-staffed, she said she “got the run around.”
Her answers came when she contacted the Los Angeles County Executive Office and recommended others who are in the position she was at the time, do the same.
“That’s the only time I got a response,” she said. “The coroner’s office (understands) what people are going through. It’s beyond their capacity with their staffing. But the county needs to understand that people suffer because of that. There are consequences. The people in power need to be made aware.”
April 17, 2017
Los Angeles Daily News
By Susan Abram