Overdose Deaths Tax State Medical Examiner Resources

The State Medical Examiner’s Office is short staffed and overburdened; an issue the has been intensified by an increase in opioid overdose deaths. The office is in the precarious position of exceeding the national caseload standards for autopsies performed per pathologist which threatens the loss of its accreditation and hampers the flow of information to prosecutors, public health officials, and other agencies that rely on the office.

The Baltimore Sun reports:

State pathologists are performing about 40 percent more autopsies than in 2010 — almost 100 more apiece — and the toxicology lab now runs nearly nonstop, officials say. But the office has not significantly boosted the ranks of examiners, and is struggling to hold on to support staff.

“Maryland is currently fully accredited,” Peterson said. “But as is the case with many offices, it might be facing loss of that accreditation due to the intersection of caseload and staffing level.”

The agency is part of the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Medical examiners investigate deaths caused by injury, homicide or suicide, and those that are untimely, suspicious or not attended by a physician. In Maryland, that’s about a third of all deaths. The office handled 14,385 cases in fiscal year 2016, and performed 5,439 autopsies.

The office began exceeding the national standard of 250 autopsies per examiner per year in fiscal 2013, according to the state health department. Its inability to meet that standard has led to its designation as deficient.

After the first quarter of fiscal 2017, the pathologists were on target to perform 328 autopsies — exceeding the limit of 325 for maintaining accreditation.

The article notes the increase in opioid overdose deaths is stressing already overburdened examiners and lab resources:

But there were far more deaths from overdose: 1,468 statewide in the first nine months of 2016, up from 1,259 for all of 2015, and more than twice as many as in 2010. Maryland was one of 30 states to report a large increase in overdose deaths.

More than 900 of the fatal overdoses in 2016 were related to heroin. More than 700 were related to fentanyl, a far more powerful opioid that is often mixed with heroin, unbeknownst to users.

Read The Baltimore Sun to learn more.