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Federal teams helps clear backlog of hundreds of cases in beleaguered state medical examiner’s office in Baltimore

A federal team helped clear a backlog of between 200 and 300 cases that had piled up in the overwhelmed Maryland medical examiner’s office, state and federal officials confirmed Friday.

Once a national model, the state office, located in Baltimore, has suffered in recent years from staff shortages and increasing delays that have left families waiting to bury loved ones and potentially putting criminal cases at risk, in addition to jeopardizing its national accreditation.

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“As of today, there are no bodies awaiting autopsy at the [Office of the Chief Medical Examiner],” said Andy Owen, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Health.

“This was a team effort: The office’s medical examiners, autopsy assistants and other staff have been working diligently to eliminate the backlog under the leadership of Acting Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Pamela Southall,” Owen said.

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Owen said the federal government sent two teams to help clear cases. There was no cost to the state, he said.

Del. Kirill Reznik said he was told during a call to the office that the federal personnel addressed the backlog this week. The Montgomery County Democrat has been following the staff shortages closely and introduced legislation to require the examiner’s office to staff appropriately.

“We called today and were told they cleared the backlog,” he said. “It probably doesn’t solve the problem of understaffing. But I imagine it’ll take a while to build back up to that level, if they don’t staff up, and, hopefully, this gives them the opportunity to staff up. It’s great news.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services said the agency sent two four-person teams to the Maryland medical examiner’s office, one the week of Feb. 14 and the next starting Feb. 25. That team’s work ended Thursday, the spokesperson said.

“Like the first team, the second team worked daily under the direction of the [Office of the Chief Medical Examiner] to conduct autopsies and perform related documentation,” the spokesperson said.

The teams came from the department’s Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team, after the state medical examiner’s office requested such help last month.

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The medical examiner’s office is charged with investigating suspicious and unattended deaths, including homicides and drug overdoses. Those deaths have spiked in recent years and increased during the coronavirus pandemic.

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The office has been overseen by the acting chief since last month. Dr. Victor W. Weedn resigned after a tumultuous year on the job during which the pace of staff departures quickened.

The National Association of Medical Examiners sets a standard of 250 autopsies a year per examiner, but Maryland examiners typically exceed that level. State records show some examiners were performing 390 autopsies in the most recent fiscal year and at times even more.

For years, the office on West Baltimore Street in the University of Maryland BioPark received provisional accreditation. Full accreditation was restored during the pandemic as the association loosened the qualifying threshold. An accreditation is seen as important to instill trust in an office’s findings.

The examiner’s office website lists a dozen examiners, in addition to the acting chief and a deputy, down from 20 listed in state documents in December. There may be even fewer full-time examiners now, though the state has approved multiple new positions and approved bonuses and pay raises.

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Hiring qualified pathologists has been a national problem because there aren’t enough to go around.

The office tried to fill the gap by rehiring retired examiners. That may have contributed to the exodus, as those eligible left and returned to lighter workloads. They could earn $850 a case and collect their pensions while avoiding some of the most complex cases.

Owen, the state health department spokesman, said the agency “remains focused on recruiting qualified professionals and encourages all applicants to apply.”

For the record

Due to source errors, an earlier version of this story incorrectly said which federal agency sent the teams that helped the medical examiner's office. They came from the Department of Health and Human Services. The Sun regrets the error.


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