- Associated Press - Thursday, January 5, 2017

BOSTON (AP) - The state’s chief medical examiner on Thursday announced his plans to retire, a decade after he was asked to begin the turnaround of an office plagued by chronic understaffing and mismanagement.

Dr. Henry Nields said in an email to staff that he will leave his $276,000-a-year position on or around July 1. Republican Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration plans a nationwide search for a successor.

Nields, 62, was named acting chief medical examiner in 2007 by then-Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick after Nields’ predecessor, Dr. Mark Flomenbaum, was removed. The shake-up - the department’s second within three years - followed a series of embarrassing missteps that included misplacing a body later found in the wrong grave and a backlog so severe that corpses were stacked in a refrigerated truck parked near the office.

Nields’ appointment was made permanent in 2009, and state officials say the office has reduced wait times for death investigations and hired additional pathologists.

“We have come a long way together over the past several years and I will be stepping down at a time when the office maintains a solid foundation and I anticipate it will continue to make major strides forward with new leadership,” Nields wrote.

He previously worked as a medical examiner in New York City, where he helped identify the remains of people killed in the 9/11 attacks.

Massachusetts Secretary of Public Safety Daniel Bennett noted that the medical examiner’s office had once been on the verge of collapse when Nields took over.

The 90-day completion rate for death certificates, he said, has improved from 56 percent to 92 percent in recent years, and the completion rate for autopsy reports within 90 days has climbed from about 25 percent to 88 percent.

Turnaround times are critical for law enforcement trying to solve difficult cases and bring charges, said Bennett, a former prosecutor, citing a case he once handled in which Nields determined that a missing woman, whose badly decomposed remains were later found in a suitcase alongside a highway, had been poisoned by her husband.

Speeding up death investigations is also vital for grieving families while helping facilitate insurance payouts and estate settlements, Bennett said.

The office came under new scrutiny last year when The Boston Globe reported on three cases in which associate medical examiners retracted earlier findings of shaken-baby syndrome, derailing or weakening prosecutions. Although no wrongdoing was found, Nields agreed to a new policy requiring that changes to death certificates first be reviewed by him or another top official.

The ME’s office has 10 full-time and two part-time medical examiners, along with two forensic pathology fellows and three contract pathologists, according to state officials. In 2007, the state had eight full-time and two part-time medical examiners and one forensic pathology fellow. The agency’s annual budget is about $9.6 million, up from $7.9 million in 2007.

Understaffing remains a severe problem in Massachusetts and nationwide, with too few medical professionals pursuing an often grim line of work and one that generally pays less than other disciplines.

“Until you have more medical examiners you’re never going to catch up,” said Bennett, acknowledging that recent progress has yet to fully restore public confidence.

“I think there is still a feeling that when something is questionable, the medical examiner’s office is still at fault,” he said.

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