Georgia’s association of elected coroners says mandated budget cuts at the state agency that performs nearly 3,000 autopsies a year could mean longer waits for families of the deceased and higher costs to county taxpayers.
The association representing the state’s sheriffs, meanwhile, urged Gov. Sonny Perdue in a letter to reconsider the proposed closure of two regional Georgia Bureau of Investigation crime labs.
The GBI’s Summerville and Moultrie facilities lost their medical examiner services after the pathologists in those two offices moved on to other jobs.
Due to Perdue’s mandated 6 percent budget cuts, the positions will not be filled.
Dawson County Coroner Ted Bearden, president of the Georgia Coroners Association, said the loss of medical examiner services in these facilities means that the majority of bodies of people involved in unattended, accidental or questionable deaths will be sent to the state crime lab in Decatur. The Moultrie and Summerville labs performed autopsies for more than 50 Georgia counties, Bearden said.
“You have increased the workload in that one office by 50 counties,” Bearden said.
He said the additional work in the Decatur office is sure to create backlogs in autopsy results, including toxicology tests, which already take months.
“It may cause a delay in us being able to release remains back to families,” Bearden said, adding that the wait for death certificates will delay the probate of wills and filing of life insurance claims for survivors.
Counties hundreds of miles away from the crime lab will shoulder additional costs to transport bodies, Bearden said.
Hall County contracts with the DeKalb County Medical Examiner’s office for autopsies and does not use the GBI for that service. But nearly all surrounding counties send bodies to the crime lab.
Bearden believes Perdue’s plan to reduce a $1.6 billion state deficit through mandatory 6 percent budget cuts in all state departments should make allowances for public safety.
“It’s a tough budget issue for the governor, I’m sure, but health and public safety should be at the forefront in terms of priorities,” Bearden said.
The governor’s office of communications did not respond to repeated requests for comment last week.
Terry Norris, executive vice president of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association, said he believed autopsies in cases involving potential crimes would continue to be turned around quickly, but that the biggest delays are likely to come in autopsies not involving foul play, “where the family is waiting to get a death certificate and move on.”
Norris also wrote Perdue a letter late last month urging the governor to stop the planned closure of regional crime labs in Moultrie and Columbus that are slated for closure in the 2010 fiscal year, which begins in July. The sheriffs’ association also opposes cuts that would limit the use of tracking dogs from the state Department of Corrections, as well as reductions in Department of Human
Resources programs that provide evaluations and services for jailed offenders with mental illnesses.
The fear is that crime lab results will take longer if the planned closures take place, Norris said.
“It will take longer to process cases, which means it will take longer to move them through the (judicial) system, and (suspects) will stay longer in jails, and we’re already bulging at the seams,” Norris said.
John Bankhead, spokesman for the GBI, noted that the agency has in recent years reduced its backlogs, from a height of 34,000 cases pending for more than 30 days in 2004 to about 7,000 now.
Bankhead said the Summerville lab lost its medical examiner services in July, while the Moultrie office hasn’t filled its medical examiner vacancy in 18 months, Bankhead said.
Recruiting board-certified medical examiners to work in those areas of the state is a challenge, and the pay, at $140,000 to $160,000, is not competitive, he said.
In addition, the GBI has instituted an agencywide hiring freeze as part of a plan to cut its budget by $4.2 million and meet the 6 percent mandate, Bankhead said.
“That money is gone, and so we had to make some tough decisions about what to cut without cutting services,” Bankhead said. “You have to make the best cost-effective decision you can with the least amount of impact.”
Bankhead acknowledged that a cut in personnel will inevitably create backlogs. He believes the actual autopsy examinations will not be delayed, while some reports may be.
From July 2007 to July 2008, the GBI performed 2,733 full autopsies. The GBI employs nine pathologists in Decatur, one in Macon, two in Savannah and one in Augusta.
Counties that used the Moultrie lab can now send their autopsy work to Macon or Savannah, Bankhead said.
The crime lab closures may not be the end of it, Bankhead said.
“If revenues keep falling, there could be other cuts,” he said.