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Medical Examiner's Office Seeks Budget Bump from State

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Years of budget shortfalls have put such a pinch on the Utah State Medical Examiner's Office that sometimes it seems like a miracle that the job gets done, chief examiner Dr. Todd Gray says.

With just four doctors, some part-time help and a few subcontractors, Grey's office handles about 5,000 sudden or unexpected death investigations annually. Add to that community calamities like multiple-fatality car crashes or a mass shooting, and the demands of a growing state don't seem to let up.

"We simply deal with everything that comes down the pike at us," Grey said.

To manage the shortfall, staff training and conferences to learn about advances in forensic medicine have been cut, along with all nonessential purchases.

But Grey is worried that if that shortfall persists, his office may have to pass on the costs of transporting bodies to families, or in criminal cases, to police departments or prosecutors' offices.

So, as the 2007 Legislature draws to a close this week, he's asking state lawmakers for $270,000 in building block funds. Half will cover the shortfall and the rest is keep-up money, Grey said.

Nationally, the average per-capita cost for an effective death-investigation system is $2.50. Utah's budget allows for only 83 cents in per-capita spending. Just raising the funding to the national average would give the state "a depth of coverage and a depth of ability we don't have," Grey said.

The medical examiner's office plays an important public health role, doing "grisly public service day in and day out," Utah Department of Health director Dr. David Sundwall said.

Deaths can't be ruled suicides or homicides, unless Grey and his doctors say so. And without an autopsy, many families would never know the cause of "natural" deaths. The office's work can also determine if a death could be an indicator of a larger public health problem.

Sundwall and Grey both worry about the office's case load, which grows every year. Since 1999, for example, deaths related to prescription drugs have increased more than 1,400 percent.

The office has benefited recently from anti-terrorism and flu pandemic grants. Grey said that money is "good for getting your goodies, like computers, but I need funding for ongoing operational expenses."

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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