The Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s decision not to replace the medical examiner in the Augusta crime lab has area coroners scrambling to adjust their limited budgets as they are now forced to send bodies to the agency’s Decatur facility.
The lab stopped performing full autopsies toward the end of September and quit doing external examinations in October following the retirement of Regional Medical Examiner Daniel Brown, Augusta’s lab manager Kenneth Daniels said. GBI spokeswoman Sherry Lang said Brown’s position has been moved to Decatur because the bureau has been unable to find a qualified forensic pathologist willing to live in Augusta.
“None of the qualified examiners want to move to Augusta,” she said. “They want to be in Atlanta.”
The job paid Brown $141,024.24 in 2013.
Without a medical examiner in Augusta, coroners in the 15 counties serviced by the Augusta crime lab now must spend additional money to send bodies to the Decatur lab.
“The budget was already done,” said Richmond County Coroner Mark Bowen. “Now we’re having to work it out the best we can.”
Bowen said his office pays a transportation company $500 per body for a round trip to Decatur.
Through the first two months of 2014, the Richmond County Coroner’s Office sent 17 bodies to Decatur at a cost of more than $8,500. His office budgeted about $42,000 this year to transport bodies.
“Instead of sending two a month to Atlanta, we’re sending nine or 10,” said Richmond County Chief Deputy Coroner Kenneth Boose about not having the ability to perform autopsies here.
The same issues exist in Burke County, Coroner Susan Salemi said.
“It’s costing us all a fortune,” she said. “That amount was not in my budget because we didn’t know it was closing down.”
Previously, Salemi said, the only expense was for the gas used by the county vehicle to take a body to the Augusta crime lab.
Now, her office must pay $330.50 for a one-way trip to Decatur.
“Between Richmond County, (Burke County) and the surrounding areas, we desperately need a medical examiner here in the Augusta office,” she said.
Columbia County Coroner Vernon Collins has found a way to mitigate the cost of transporting bodies. In 2003, Collins acquired a specially-equipped refrigerated van that allows him to do it himself.
“It’s a problem, but I’ve adjusted to it,” he said, adding that the only cost is gas.
The Decatur facility now has nine medical examiners after the GBI moved Brown’s position there, making Augusta the largest metropolitan area in the state without one. The regional lab in Macon has one medical examiner, and the agency’s Savannah lab has two.
“We’re still getting everything done and we’re doing everything we can to get those cases prioritized,” Lang said about the Augusta region. “We’re doing everything we can to accommodate the coroner’s offices that we serve.”
However, not having a medical examiner in Augusta has created a backlog at the Decatur facility. The agency lost additional space that was available at the Augusta crime lab’s morgue. Daniels said the facility could hold eight bodies.
“There’s times when you call to send them to Atlanta and they don’t have room,” Boose said. “They’re so busy that we have to leave (the bodies) sitting (in) the morgue at (Georgia Regents Medical Center) or back here for a day or two before they’re ready to accept them.”
The Decatur lab can preform about 15 autopsies daily, Lang said. In all, the lab can hold 29 bodies.
Even when the GBI is ready to accept the body, it’s not guaranteed that an autopsy will be performed that day, Bowen said. Once done, it still takes between 16 to 20 weeks to receive the results of an autopsy in most cases.
“That presents a big problem for families expecting insurance (money) and paying bills,” Bowen said. “They can’t do nothing until they get the results.”
In a recent case, Boose said a family was forced to give up their home because they didn’t get results fast enough.
“The wife could not afford the house payment because the husband was the primary bread winner and the insurance wouldn’t pay until they had the results of the autopsy back,” he said. “She had to go 20 weeks to just find out what the results were.”
Bowen said sometimes the coroner’s office is forced to send bodies to a private laboratory in Newberry, S.C.
“Well send them there if it’s not a crime and we need some answers,” Bowen said. “Or if the GBI turns them down and we feel it needs to be investigated further, we’ll send them to Newberry.”
The coroner’s office has to pay about $1,000 for the autopsy in addition to the transportation cost, Boose said.
He wants coroners in the Augusta region to ask their state representatives to help them get an examiner back in the Phinizy Road facility.
“If they’re having to wait two or three days to accept the body, then they’re too busy,” Boose said. “If they’re too busy, we need to have this one open.”