- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 29, 2003

The District’s medical examiner, one of the city’s highest-paid workers, is seeking a pay raise even though his office has not yet erased a significant backlog of autopsies since he took charge of the agency in 1998.

“Frankly, considering that I have not had an increase in five years, it is something that I am discussing with the mayor’s office,” D.C. Chief Medical Examiner Jonathan L. Arden said in an interview.

Dr. Arden, whose $165,000 salary makes him the District’s fifth highest-paid employee, said that an agreement has not been reached, and that he is not threatening any action to leverage a pay increase.

A spokesman for Mr. Williams declined to comment, saying salary and contract negotiations are confidential personnel matters.

D.C. officials hired Dr. Arden in April 1998 to reform the city’s dysfunctional morgue and coroner’s office.

In 1998, a stench permeated the morgue, roaches and flies abounded, bodies were stacked atop each other, and a huge backlog of autopsy and laboratory test results frustrated police investigators and mortuaries seeking closure for families.

Since then, the office’s budget has grown from $3.3 million to $6 million, and $6.5 million is proposed for fiscal 2004.

Dr. Arden leads a medical examiner’s office of 55 employees and a caseload of about 1,450 autopsies a year in a city with 572,000 residents. His pay is comparable to that of the Maryland state medical examiner, who has statewide jurisdiction and a workload nearly three times the size.

Maryland State Chief Medical Examiner David Fowler earns $169,518 annually. With a $6 million budget and a staff of about 72, his office performs about 4,000 autopsies a year. Maryland has about 5.7 million residents.

An Arden pay raise would require approval by the D.C. Council.

Council member Kathleen Patterson — chairman of the Judiciary Committee, which oversees the medical examiner’s office — reserved comment on a pay raise for Dr. Arden, saying she was not aware of any salary talks.

Mrs. Patterson, Ward 3 Democrat, said she has concerns about the morgue and has scheduled public oversight hearings for Sept. 25.

By many accounts, the medical examiner’s office has undergone a transformation since 1998. The refrigeration and ventilation systems have been repaired. The autopsy tables are new. New tiles lie on the floors, and fresh paint covers the walls.

The toxicology lab, which was shut down in 1996, is partially operational. The lab now conducts about two-thirds of the morgue’s blood work, said Fiona Couper, the chief toxicologist.

However, the histology lab, where specimen slides are processed, was shut down this month after the city’s risk-management office found unhealthy working conditions.

And a persistent autopsy backlog still keeps death certificates from being completed on time.

The medical examiner’s office has a backlog of about 1,300 unfinished autopsy reports, some of them dating back several years. The unfinished work includes about 700 death certificates lacking a final determination of death, according to the May 2003 oversight report by the Judiciary Committee.

The committee also faulted the office for high employee turnover and other staffing problems, its failure to promulgate written policies and procedures for basic functions of the office, and its failure to fully open the toxicology lab by the December 2001 target date.

“The morgue isn’t well, but it’s better than it was,” said Mark Dooms, funeral director for Pope Funeral Homes in Southeast.

Quite often Mr. Dooms still waits a “very long time” for death certificates to be completed, which can leave the family of the deceased wondering about the cause of death and also delay resolving insurance claims, he said.

“The organization still has a lot to be desired,” said Mr. Dooms.

U.S. Mint Police Inspector Lou Cannon, president of D.C. Fraternal Order of Police, said that the improvements have been mostly cosmetic, and that police still complain about waiting for autopsy reports.

“They’ve painted. They’ve cleaned. They’ve done some things like that,” said Inspector Cannon, whose group represents 10,000 of the city’s police officers. “But the problems are still there.”

Dr. Arden acknowledged the lingering autopsy backlog.

“That problem is not completely fixed,” he said. “I wouldn’t for a minute try to tell you that this is a problem that is 100 percent fixed. … Some of them are now getting turned around very quickly, and some of them are still significantly delayed.”

Dr. Arden said his department is on the right track. He doesn’t know how long it will take before the medical examiner’s office is functioning to his satisfaction, but he promised consistent improvements.

“Within the next six to 12 months, you should be seeing us getting to the next level as far as eliminating a substantial amount of backlog, not all of it, and certainly getting the work turnaround more uniformed,” Dr. Arden said.

The Times first reported in April about the proliferation of six-figure salaries in the D.C. government. The District has more city-government workers earning $100,000-plus salaries than Chicago, a city of nearly 3 million residents, and Baltimore, which has 651,000 residents.

Of the District’s 34,000 city employees, more than 575 earn more than $100,000 a year. In comparison, 419 of Chicago’s 40,000 city workers and 33 of Baltimore’s 15,000 city workers earn that much.

Dr. Arden earns more than the chief medical examiners in Delaware and Vermont, which have populations and median incomes similar to the District’s. But he earns less than the chief medical examiner for Denver, a city similar in size to the District.

In Delaware, which has 783,600 residents, Chief Medical Examiner Richard Callery makes $135,400. He has 35 employees and a $3.5 million budget, and his office conducts about 2,900 autopsies a year.

In Vermont, which has 608,000 residents, State Medical Examiner Paul L. Morrow makes $102,024. He has seven employees and a $950,000 budget, and his office investigated 582 cases and did 364 autopsies last year.

Denver Chief Medical Examiner Tom Henry makes $227,520 a year. His office has 21 employees, a $2.1 million budget and performed 725 autopsies last year. Denver has 554,636 residents.

Dr. Arden, a graduate of the University of Michigan Medical School and formerly a first deputy chief medical examiner in New York City, said that many in his field complain of being underpaid compared with other medical professionals.

“You don’t do this kind of work because you are getting rich,” he said. “You don’t do this kind of work because it is necessarily easier or more cushy than other practices of pathology. You see things that are gruesome; you see things that are smelly; you see things that are difficult to deal with.”

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