- Associated Press - Monday, September 29, 2014

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - State Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos (vahsh) says North Carolina’s system for investigating suspicious deaths has been “chronically understaffed and underfunded.”

The Charlotte Observer reported (https://bit.ly/1oqKcjX) Wos offered her assessment to a legislative panel Monday.

The committee, which oversees the state agency, is examining ways the state can improve a medical examiner system that Wos said has been “ignored and diminished.” It follows a series by the Observer that found medical examiners fail to examine bodies in one out of every nine cases, breaking state law.

Most medical examiners are doctors and nurses who perform death investigations on the side. The state pays them just $100 per case, which experts say is little incentive to get up at night or travel to a death scene.

Following the newspaper’s series, the General Assembly asked an independent research unit to examine ways to improve the system. The legislature’s Program Evaluation Division should wrap up its study and recommendations in early 2015, said director John Turcotte.

Legislators also approved an additional $1 million for the medical examiner’s office. The money represents a roughly 24 percent increase in state funding for the system.

DHHS officials say they are working hard to improve the system, and are pursuing accreditation from the National Association of Medical Examiners.

Dr. Lou Turner, deputy chief of epidemiology for the state Division of Public Health, said the department is considering whether to hire 50 death investigators - a step needed to get NAME accreditation. The salaries and benefits of those investigators would cost $2.8 million, she said.

A 2001 state study group warned that North Carolina needed to reform its medical examiner system. Among other things, the group recommended that the state require training and hire professional investigators.

Also, Wos said the department has taken steps to improve the system.

“We’ve stabilized our regional system that was at risk of falling part,” she told lawmakers. “We aggressively pushed for hiring flexibility to fill key pathologist positions that were long left vacant. We’re also improving quality assurance efforts. We’ve already reduced caseloads significantly.”


Information from: The Charlotte Observer, https://www.charlotteobserver.com

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