Families forced to wait months for autopsy reports and death certificates

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (WWLP) - Imagine having to wait months, or even years to find out how your loved one died.

A backlog at the state Medical Examiner's Office has caused lengthy delays in autopsy reports, toxicology screenings, and death certificates, reports that can be critical for a family's insurance claims, and their peace of mind.

State Auditor Suzanne Bump first uncovered the issue in August. She told the I-Team, the Medical Examiner's Office had failed to complete 58% of autopsy reports, 32% of death certificates, and 28% of toxicology exams within the 90-day industry standard during her audit, which dated back to July of 2013.

The 22News I-Team dug through hundreds of death certificates in Springfield, and found the medical examiner's office still hasn't completed 23 from 2016. 71 from 2017.

Grieving families aren't the only ones being affected by the delays at the medical examiner's office.

The 22News I-Team discovered, the National Association of Medical Examiners requires state medical examiners to complete 90% of autopsy reports within 90-days. Since Massachusetts has failed to meet that standard, they’ve only given the office partial accreditation since 2013.

That means it’s very likely the office will lose full accreditation within the next few months, which could damage the agency’s credibility and raise questions in court.

District Attorney Anthony Gulluni told the I-Team autopsy and toxicology reports can also be critical evidence in criminal court cases. “If we don't have an autopsy report for instance on a case involving a death, that's a necessary piece of discovery we have to provide. It's our responsibility to maintain that burden and if we cannot, we can lose a charge temporarily or permanently.”

Gulluni said this has not happened in Hampden County yet.

Public Safety Secretary Daniel Bennett oversees the Office of the Medical Examiner.

He told the I-Team that recruiting and hiring pathologists has been a major issue. Only about 30 to 40 of the country's 17-thousand medical students become forensic pathologists each year. “We've got about 14 medical examiners, and the number of autopsies that need to be done, reports that need to be filed, are way above the national average.”

The staffing issues are evident in the large number of cases being taken on by medical. The National Association of Medical Examiners doesn't want pathologists to take on more than 250 cases per year. In Massachusetts… they performed an average of 430, as of 2016.

Still, Bennett said he’s aware that the office’s staffing problems isn’t any comfort to grieving families who are still waiting for results. “We've got to do better.”

The situation has started to improve since the audit. Medical Examiners no longer have to do their own paper work, which Bennett said has drastically improved turnaround times. “We put together a new way to process the cases faster by making teams of people who are on the administrative side work with medical examiners. They’re now doing a lot of the functions that the medical examiners had to do themselves, and that way we’ve upped it to get the reports done in a faster manner.”

Since mid-2016, they've been able to complete 72% of autopsies and 81% of death certificates within the 90-day standard.

Accreditation:

The National Association of Medical Examiners uses this checklist when auditing state medical examiners.

Forensic Pathologists are only allowed to perform 325 autopsies each year under NAME standards, the recommended number is 250. If they cross the limit, or fail to complete 90% of these reports within 90-days, they lose partial accreditation. If the problem continues, they'll lose full accreditation.

 

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