Medical Examiner: Lack of Funding Slows Work

Medical Examiner: Lack of Funding Slows Work

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- A funding shortage is keeping Chief Medical Examiner Todd Grey's staff from doing all that they should be doing.

The funding problems are not hampering criminal investigations, but they do make it difficult to analyze fatality data and sometimes force families to wait longer to collect life insurance, he said.

The office handled 4,975 cases last year and its workload has been increasing 5 percent annually.

Its budget has not kept up. The state appropriated the medical examiner $1.926 million for the current fiscal year, up 5 percent from three years ago.

Grey said the appropriation is low compared to other statewide and metropolitan medical examiner offices across the country.

A. Richard Melton, deputy director of the state Health Department, said funding is a matter of priorities.

"It's a terrible way to say it, and I shouldn't say it this way, but he's looking at dead people and many of our programs are looking at live people," Melton said.

The office has four full-time pathologists, including Grey. There are two full-time death investigators and the office employs part-time death investigators, usually law-enforcement personnel, stationed in locations around the state.

Grey said his office lacks the software and personnel to effectively analyze fatalities and the factors that cause deaths,

He cites drug-related deaths, which currently total about 400 a year in Utah. Three or four years ago, Grey and some physicians thought they were seeing higher rates of overdose deaths, but had only observations and anecdotal evidence.

With more analytical tools and personnel, the office could have more quickly determined what eventually became obvious -- that drug deaths indeed were on the rise, he said.

Grey said they could alerted health workers to a correctable problem and perhaps saved some lives. Grey said it also would help his office if more funds went to the state Public Health Laboratory, which conducts toxicology tests. The lack of personnel and equipment often mean it takes eight to 12 weeks to get the results.

In some of the cases, this prevents the medical examiner from issuing a death certificate. Insurance companies often require death certificates before they issue life insurance awards.

That means families must wait longer for money sometimes needed for burial costs and income losses.

"That's an impact the poor funding has that has the most direct effect on the public," Grey said.

There also is insufficient money to provide ongoing training and meet the industry's salary demands, he said.

Sen. Sheldon Killpack, R-Syracuse, co-chair of the Joint Appropriations Committee for Health and Human Services, said his committee relies heavily on the recommendations from the health department, and the medical examiner's office has not been presented to him as a serious priority.

"And certainly, the same argument can be made from every department in the state that they feel underfunded," said Killpack.

(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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