Services extended for Greenville Medical Examiner's Office - WNCT

Services extended for Greenville Medical Examiner's Office

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Autopsies will continue in Greenville while a new contract is negotiated with the state.

Last month we reported loss of funding would force the Medical Examiner's office at East Carolina University to end autopsies for all but two of the 24 counties it serves.

The remaining cases would have to go to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Raleigh.

Now, officials at ECU say the state Department of Health and Human Services recently proposed a new contract that could allow services to continue in the Greenville office for the next fiscal year.

A spokesperson for the school says the ECU office will still perform autopsies for all the counties while the details of the contract are worked out.

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The regional medical examiner's office won't be the only one feeling the effects of massive budget cuts.

Investigators and prosecutors say the loss of a federal grant will be devastating.

Starting June 1st, Beaufort County is one of 22 counties that will now have to go through the Chief Medical  Examiner's office for autopsies.

"Having autopsies done in Raleigh will force us to look at whether we can send an investigator to an autopsy," said Major Kenneth Watson, of the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office.

Watson says the change would mean less manpower and more travel costs for local agencies. Funeral homes will now have to travel to Raleigh to pick up remains.

"And that expense will be borne by the people paying for the funeral unfortunately," said Pitt County District Attorney, Kimberly Robb.

The only two counties that will still receive services from the Eastern Regional office are Pitt and Greene counties.

Robb says she can usually get autopsy reports back within 30 days but if the Greenville-based office can't get more funding within the next year, she says that could all change.

"There's going to be a delay without a doubt."

"How big of a delay? If you could put a number on it..," asked 9 on your side's Kristen Hunter.

"If you look at the SBI lab, and compare it to that, we're probably talking a year, maybe even longer. Could be potentially two years," said Robb. "What if we have to wait a week or longer for an autopsy to be performed? We may not know the cause of death and that can be devastating to an investigation because how do you interrogate a suspect if you don't know the cause of death in a case?"

Last October, Chief Medical Examiner, Debi Radisch, told our Raleigh CBS-affiliate a new, $52-million facility would make things more efficient.

"We would hope that we would be performing four autopsies at the same time," she said.

The state medical examiner already handles more than 2,000 cases a year.

The Department of Health and Human services tells 9 on your side the Chief Medical Examiner's office pays to transport bodies to Raleigh; individual agencies do not have to incur that cost.

The Greenville office is the only office in the state that will be affected by these cuts. DHHS says they realize the impact this has and are doing everything they can to make sure services will continue in Eastern North Carolina.

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About 400 bodies a year will now have to go to the medical examiner's office in Raleigh due to state cuts.

Starting June 1st, the eastern regional office's contract with the state won't be renewed because a federal Centers for Disease Control grant was cut. That office serves 24 counties in Eastern North Carolina.

Without the contract, the regional medical examiner's office will have to stop serving 22 counties. They will only be able to perform autopsies for Pitt and Greene counties. The announcement was unexpected for ECU pathologists who work there.

Just a few months ago they granted 9 on your side rare access to our Regional Medical Examiner's office.

"I think some people would think that sounds like a really morbid job. What keeps you coming back?" asked 9 on your side's Kristen Hunter.

"The inquiry. Finding out what happened to people and letting other people know," said Dr. MGF Gilliland, ECU Forensic Pathologist.

But now those same pathologists won't get the chance to give hundreds of people answers. They just found out the $322,000 contract they have with the office of the Chief Medical Examiner will not be renewed. The contract makes up about 37% of their budget.

Every year the regional office performs about 530 autopsies. Starting June 1st, they will only get $1,000 per autopsy from the state, which means about 400 of those bodies will have to go to Raleigh. The procedures usually cost around $1,700.

"The people in Eastern North Carolina will have to deal with some delays both in how quickly their autopsies are performed and in how long it takes to get the results back in the report. I think that the Office of the Chief Medical examiner will be significantly stressed," said ECU pathologist, Dr. Bill Oliver.

As a result, the regional office will only serve Pitt and Greene counties. It will be a bigger workload for pathologists in Raleigh, but Department Chair, Peter Kragel, says it could have even bigger consequences right here in the east.

"We would be very concerned because of the marked increase in workload. Because of that, turn-around time would not be good. This might delay litigation or result in litigation without sufficient information, which no one likes to see. Law enforcement likes to be there when some of these cases are done or be available to discuss the case personally. That would be problematic. Funeral homes would be negatively impacted as there would be a lot of transport of bodies back and forth and the potential delays. So it's nothing that we want to see happen," he said.

Kragel says public health surveillance, disaster response and court testimony will also take hits.

A Senate Bill has been introduced which would increase autopsy fees to $1,500 dollars. If that's approved and funded, school officials say that could help offset some of the money they've lost.

They will reassess whether they will continue medical examiner services in 2014.

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