- Associated Press - Saturday, January 4, 2020

DAVENPORT, Iowa (AP) - The loss of access to two of three forensic pathology labs in Iowa is translating into high costs for autopsies out of Scott County.

The Scott County Medical Examiner’s Office lost access in June to the lab at the University of Iowa because of a temporary staffing shortage there. Service was to resume in January, but the date now is uncertain.

Meanwhile, the Scott County Health Department, which oversees the medical examiner, learned last week that a second lab is off limits for autopsy services. The agency was notified by Weland Labs in Cedar Rapids that autopsies no longer can be performed there. New guidelines by the College of American Pathologists are rendering the lab non-compliant on Jan. 1.

The only remaining option for local autopsies is the Iowa State Medical Examiner’s lab at Ankeny, according to the Quad-City Times.

The county has been depending largely on services in Cedar Rapids, because it costs considerably less to transport remains there. For round-trip transport of remains to Cedar Rapids or Iowa City, the county was paying $580. The charge for round-trip autopsy delivery to Ankeny is $1,412.

The cost of a state-performed autopsy at Ankeny is $1,900. While the service sometimes was higher by several hundred dollars in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, the higher transportation costs to Ankeny made the closer laboratories more financially desirable.

Scott County ordered 80 autopsies last year and 87 this year.

“It’s quite discouraging,” Health Department Director Edward Rivers said Friday of the news the Cedar Rapids lab no longer is an option.

He said it is “unfortunate” that county health departments in Iowa have for about a decade been forbidden to use less expensive facilities.

“The Iowa SME (State Medical Examiner) office has insisted that autopsies not be performed at out-of-state locations,” Rivers wrote in an email. “Before that time, Scott County routinely used a provider in Rockford, Ill.”

The use of forensic facilities in Illinois made good financial sense for Scott County.

A comparison of autopsy, transportation and toxicology-related expenses in Rock Island County showed Scott County taxpayers are responsible for nearly three times the cost of all post-mortem investigations.

Rock Island County Coroner Brian Gustafson has an agreement with a board certified forensic pathologist who charges $900 per autopsy.

In most cases, Gustafson transports the remains himself, though the lab locations vary. Most Rock Island County autopsies by Dr. Mark Peters are performed at labs in Dixon or Oregon, Illinois. In the event Gustafson must deliver to labs in Peoria, Rockford or Freeport, the coroner is charged an additional morgue-rental fee between $100 and just under $300.

He estimates he has saved taxpayers more than $200,000 over the past 10 years by transporting remains himself, rather than paying local funeral homes to do so. Prior to 2008, Gustafson paid between $300 and $500 for autopsy transports, and those costs would likely be higher today.

The autopsy itself is at least $1,000 cheaper in Illinois, too. The much lower transportation costs and lesser charges for toxicology testing makes a considerable combined difference.

“I pay $1,250, max,” Gustafson said. “I use a forensic lab out of Pittsburgh for toxicology. We pay $202 to $204 for an expanded basic screen (of blood and urine).

“It’s a very comprehensive screen, and I’m really happy with it. At first, we were getting results in nine or 10 days. Now it’s about three weeks, but that’s better that the six-to-eight weeks it was taking when I was using (the forensic lab) in St. Louis.

“The state lab at Morton is free, but it could take six months to get results. That would be very, very frustrating today.”

The frustration still exists in Scott County.

In a recent death investigation, Davenport Police said for nearly five months they were waiting on toxicology testing to determine whether a death was accidental or intentional. Autopsy and toxicology results from the July 26 death resulted in a murder charge on Dec. 18.

Fees for toxicology screenings aren’t notably higher in Iowa; the highest basic was at Cedar Rapids for $340.

But the wait times, such as the extensive period in the summer homicide, can be hard on families and law enforcement.

Rivers, of the Scott County Health Department, noted prior to the news of the Cedar Rapids lab becoming unavailable that toxicology results were faster there.

“The turnaround at Weland (Cedar Rapids) is faster than the SME (Ankeny), where there is often a backlog,” he wrote. “This is of benefit to families.”

Following last week’s news that all autopsies must now go to Ankeny, Rivers predicted transportation costs will increase, and wait times will routinely be longer.

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