The Connecticut Office of the Chief Medical Examiner is in danger of losing its accreditation because of budget cuts and staffing levels, according to a letter from the National Association of Medical Examiners.
Chief Medical Examiner James Gill received a letter earlier this month saying that an increased workload and the number of autopsies each pathologist is performing will result in what’s called a “Phase II” deficiency, which will lead to the department losing full accreditation and instead being demoted to a one-year provisional accreditation. From there, it must fix the issues to get full accreditation back.
“The OCME faces many challenges related to inadequate funding and insufficient staffing. Most notably, there are insufficient numbers of forensic pathologists, medicolegal death investigators, and clerical personnel for the volume of cases in Connecticut,” Barbara Wolf, chair of the inspection committee for the National Association of Medical Examiners, wrote in the letter.
A statement from the state Office of Policy and Management, which functions as a staff agency of the governor, said the governor and legislature must set the resource levels for the department.
“Dr. Gill and his staff have the unenviable duty of facing the worst of the opioid crisis which has increased the number of autopsies the Chief Medical Examiner must perform. We appreciate the insights of outside accreditation entities, but the legislature and Governor must ultimately set the resource levels for the agency. We will strongly consider the requests of OCME in developing the Governor’s budget proposal and we will continue working with DMHAS and first responders across the state to fight opioid addiction and prevent overdose deaths,” Chris McClure, spokesperson for the Office of Policy and Management, said in a statement.
In 2010, each pathologist performed 276 autopsies and the chief medical examiner had a 50 percent caseload because of other administrative duties, according to the association. However, the most recent data showed the seven pathologists performing several more – more than 325 autopsies -- and the chief medical examiner with a full caseload.
In May, Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano said Connecticut towns would be responsible for processing bodies when a deaths is not a medical examiner case.
In the past, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner would take the bodies of people who had died and not been claimed by family as a courtesy, Fasano said.
However, Gill said that "due to budget cuts and storage facility limitations," local municipalities will need to take on the burden.
In her letter to Gill, Wolf wrote an insufficient number of investigators and clerical staff will lead to more deficiencies of the same kind.
“The office under your leadership has been putting forth maximum effort in order to handle an ever-expanding number of increasingly more complex cases without a sufficient increase in funding and personnel,” Wolf’s letter says. “There is only one chance to perform a complete and thorough initial death investigation, so the importance of maintaining sufficient numbers of trained and competent personnel available at all times cannot be over emphasized.”
If the office does not show a “good faith effort” to correct deficiencies, it will lose its accreditation entirely, according to the national association, which could lead to attacks on the office’s credibility in the event of criminal or civil cases.
“When an overburdened staff results in the failure of reports of postmortem examinations to be completed within a reasonable time frames, the impact is felt at many levels,” Wolf wrote. “Law enforcement cannot conclude homicide investigations, prosecutors cannot indict cases properly, family members cannot obtain needed insurance money or emotional closure and donor tissues cannot be delivered to patients in need in a timely fashion,” Wolf wrote.
The office will have an onsite inspection in January and anticipates losing full accreditation.
He said he shared the letter and staffing issues have been shared with the executive and legislative branches of the Connecticut government.