- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 15, 2016

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - The Montana state health department and Lewis and Clark County officials have given the county’s longtime coroner a month to complete 51 incomplete death certificates, two of which date back to 2011, or the state will seek a court order to compel him to do the work.

The lack of a final death certificate has left some families unable to settle estates and claim life insurance benefits, officials said.

The backlog involves certificates that were initially filed with a pending cause of death but not updated after the office of Coroner Mickey Nelson received toxicology tests or reports from the state medical examiner.

The state began raising the issue with the county in 2011 and noted that certified letters sent directly to Nelson asking him to update the pending certificates were not accepted.

Nelson, 71, told the Independent Record (https://bit.ly/1XX5yvl) the demands and complexities of cases have increased in the four decades he has held the job and he’s overwhelmed.

“I’ve been by myself for over 40 years and the death load has every year increased,” Nelson said, adding that he wasn’t granted a full-time deputy until two years ago.

One was hired in January but resigned in late April, saying the office was in disarray and Nelson wouldn’t train her to do the job. The county redacted the former deputy coroner’s name from the letter of resignation, which said personal items belonging to decedents are not stored properly, including medications and guns.

The county has hired another deputy coroner so Nelson can focus on the unfinished certificates.

Nelson was provided the funding to hire a deputy coroner beginning in July 2011, and had been encouraged to do so, county officials said in an October 2015 letter to Nelson that asked for a detailed plan on how and when he would complete what was then a backlog of 54 incomplete death certificates.

“It’s finally coming to a head,” Commission Chairman Mike Murray said. “We’re taking care of something that we should have taken care of a few years ago.”

County Attorney Leo Gallagher said he didn’t want to charge Nelson with official misconduct because he “has given his life to public service and is overwhelmed with work.”

While negotiating the agreement to complete the backlog of work, there was also a discussion about whether Nelson should resign or retire, but he said he refused.

“There’s nothing about this I feel good about,” Nelson said.

Another issue with the coroner’s office was raised in February, at the beginning of a deliberate homicide trial. The defense had wanted to analyze a cap was worn by Timothy Newman when he was fatally shot in October 2013, but no one could locate it.

Days before the trial started, Nelson reported finding the cap in his office. The state agreed to pay for expedited analysis on the cap in order to avoid delaying the trial.

On Monday, Nelson said he had certified the cause of death in half of the 51 death certificates at issue, including 14 that were ready to send. Eric Bryson, the county’s chief administrative officer, said as of Tuesday the state had received 11 completed certifications.

Nelson declined to respond to comments made in the former deputy coroner’s resignation letter, saying she has a right to her opinion.

“I feel bad that we gave all of this training to her and we get nothing out of it,” he said.

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Information from: Independent Record, https://www.helenair.com


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