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With opioid deaths still coming, Maryland starts search for new chief medical examiner

A deputy in the state medical examiners’ office will take over for Dr. David R. Fowler at the end of the year when he retires and there will be a nationwide search for a permanent chief, health officials said Tuesday.

Fowler, the long-serving and well-regarded chief medical examiner, told The Baltimore Sun last month he planned to leave. He’d been in the position for 17 years and said the opioid crisis factored in his decision to leave.

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The record overdose deaths, more than 200 a month in Maryland, as well as record homicides have taken a toll on Fowler and the staff, he said. The office performed so many autopsies that it risked losing its national accreditation in 2017, a vital rating for prosecutors and source of faith in the findings for the public.

Dr. Pamela E. Southall, a 16-year veteran of the office and a board certified forensic pathologist, was appointed acting chief by the Post Mortem Examiners Commission, a state panel that oversees the work of the office, a largely independent operation that falls for budgeting purposes under the Maryland Department of Health.

The office operates out of a $43 million facility that opened in 2010 to provide more space and modern facilities to the staff. The state added two medical examiner and other positions after the Sun highlighted the workload, though hiring and keeping professionals has proven difficult. The state also boosted the examiners’ salaries to stem turnover.

“We thank Dr. Fowler for 17 years of service and appreciate Dr. Southall stepping in as Acting CME to direct this vitally important office,” said Health Secretary Robert R. Neall in a statement. “Maryland is fortunate to have one of the nation’s leading medicolegal institutions, not only for conducting critical investigative, public health and educational roles, but also for seeking justice for the deceased and assisting loved ones through the process."

Officials expect the search for a replacement to take six to nine months.

The office investigates deaths from injury, homicide, suicide, unusual or suspicious circumstances or when a person is not attended by a physician at the time of death. In Maryland that’s about a third of deaths. The office received over 15,000 death referrals from the state’s 24 jurisdictions in 2018 and conducted 5,700 autopsies.

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