Crime & Courts

Richmond Co. | Columbia Co. | Aiken Co. |

Coroners, families struggle with absence of medical examiner in Augusta

Saturday, March 29, 2014 6:05 PM
Last updated Sunday, March 30, 2014 2:34 AM
  • Follow Crime & courts

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.”

Comments (32) Add comment
ADVISORY: Users are solely responsible for opinions they post here and for following agreed-upon rules of civility. Posts and comments do not reflect the views of this site. Posts and comments are automatically checked for inappropriate language, but readers might find some comments offensive or inaccurate. If you believe a comment violates our rules, click the "Flag as offensive" link below the comment.
jmo
16730
Points
jmo 03/29/14 - 07:48 pm
8
1
I'm sorry.....

but a job that pays that salary, move where they tell you to or find another job.

corgimom
34196
Points
corgimom 03/29/14 - 07:57 pm
3
6
So what do you do if they say

So what do you do if they say "If you try to move me to Augusta, I'll quit"?

It is very hard to find people to fill that job.

bright idea
853
Points
bright idea 03/29/14 - 09:02 pm
2
2
It sounds

jmo, It sounds like that's what the MEs are doing.

Riverman1
87014
Points
Riverman1 03/29/14 - 10:04 pm
5
2
Part Time Medical Examiner?

How does the Augusta GBI lab operate without a pathologist supervisor? Can't they hire a contract medical examiner when an autopsy is needed?

Little Lamb
47002
Points
Little Lamb 03/29/14 - 10:20 pm
3
2
Budget

From the story:

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.

It ought to be cheaper to send a body to Decatur than to pay a full-time salary for a pathologist here in Augusta.

From the story:

“None of the qualified examiners want to move to Augusta,” Sherry Lang said. “They want to be in Atlanta.”

Well, you don't have to transfer existing pathologists here. Just hire a new one off the streets. Surely a recent Grooo graduate might want to stay in this cool town! I'll bet Countyman can suggest one.

Little Lamb
47002
Points
Little Lamb 03/29/14 - 10:25 pm
2
5
New Rule

From the story:

The coroner’s office has to pay about $1,000 for the autopsy in addition to the transportation cost, Boose said.

Why does the government pay? It's time to make a new rule: The victim's family pays for the autopsy up front, or there's no autopsy done at all. Period.

Travis Highfield
225
Points
Travis Highfield 03/29/14 - 10:46 pm
3
0
GBI is still spending the money.

LL, the GBI didn't lose a medical examiner. It isn't saving money because the examiner it hired to replace Brown decided that Augusta wasn't his/her cup of tea and opted for Atlanta. Even if they did lose an examiner, the coroners still have to pay to transport the body, not the GBI.

Little Lamb
47002
Points
Little Lamb 03/29/14 - 10:50 pm
5
2
Okay

So, the GBI has a budget to hire pathologists, but they allow the new hires to select where they want to work. Sweet! Well, then the rest of the state must suffer.

The point I was trying to make is that the Augusta pathologist position on Phinizy Road should be a position that should be filled instead of having two at the Decatur lab. But, what do I know?

Travis Highfield
225
Points
Travis Highfield 03/29/14 - 10:59 pm
9
0
Speaking of money....

I'd work anywhere for $141,024.24.

raul
5332
Points
raul 03/30/14 - 12:57 am
7
0
Travis, is that a full time

Travis, is that a full time job for $141K? If so, that is a low salary for a M.D. that has specialized training.

Young Fred
17860
Points
Young Fred 03/30/14 - 03:37 am
3
1
Let's get real

The salary matters not! Either you'll do the job to the best of your ability or you won't!

I can't speak to GA, but had a recent "run-in" with SC.

Unless you know somebody, you've got a long, I mean a Loooong wait ahead of you.

EnoughAlready2
215
Points
EnoughAlready2 03/30/14 - 09:42 am
8
0
Salary

The M.E. is forensic trained physician. The $140k salary is lower than that national average. The findings by the M.E. are vital to lending closure to families and law officials. The work is valued. The training is rigorous and intense. The current Richmond Cty superintendent salary is $170k. The educational preparation for the M.E. is much more rigorous than a superintendent. Yes, many superintendents have a doctorate in education, but let's face it, those degrees are a dime a dozen and cannot be compared to a Medical Doctor Degree. Augusta will have no problem filling the soon to be vacant superintendent position. It is apparent that there is an imbalance when comparing salaries and responsibilities. Both jobs are important, but the M.E. pay is insulting.

gargoyle
18663
Points
gargoyle 03/30/14 - 10:07 am
3
0
try that in the private world

try that in the private world and see if it flies . Tell your boss I know the post is in Augusta but I really want to work in LA and see how fast they look for someone else for the job. Only in the world of government could this kind of reality happen.

Riverman1
87014
Points
Riverman1 03/30/14 - 10:33 am
2
2
Who Needs GBI Medical Examiner?

If Newberry has a private medical examiner to do these autopsies, then why not use that facility for Richmond County including criminal cases? It's not that far to drive there. Also, encourage a private pathologist to open an office here in the CSRA and become the medical examiner. A private pathologist who does other things locally may consider fees the county can pay appropriate for part time work.

itsanotherday1
45482
Points
itsanotherday1 03/30/14 - 11:16 am
2
2
I take it that they've TRIED

I take it that they've TRIED to hire a new doctor, but none of the applicants want to live in Augusta.

$141K as an employee can't be compared with your local PCP. They work for the state, have retirement and benefits through the state, basically work 9-5, no on call, etc.

I once had a surgeon tell me that he made less than a autoworker if you factored in overtime he didn't get, no paid benefits, etc.

itsanotherday1
45482
Points
itsanotherday1 03/30/14 - 11:18 am
3
0
RM

Newberry is a one man band, or at least was when I was in the field. No way they could take on all of the need.

itsanotherday1
45482
Points
itsanotherday1 03/30/14 - 11:23 am
5
0
Good money

"Bowen said his office pays a transportation company $500 per body for a round trip to Decatur."

I think I will buy myself an old refrigerated box truck and make three hauls a week from the CSRA..... Somebody is getting fat on $500/pop. You can get a roundtrip ride to the airport in Atlanta for < 1/3 of that.

Gage Creed
17863
Points
Gage Creed 03/30/14 - 02:38 pm
4
0
Bait Presentation

If your offering $140K and are not getting any bites.... your bait must not be attractive....

gargoyle
18663
Points
gargoyle 03/30/14 - 04:17 pm
1
0
" the examiner it hired to

" the examiner it hired to replace Brown decided that Augusta wasn't his/her cup of tea and opted for Atlanta." Travis Highfield . So apparently they got a bite but isn't a keeper.
In the private world his contract would be void and potential employers would be clued into why .

Gage Creed
17863
Points
Gage Creed 03/30/14 - 04:51 pm
1
0
Gargoyle... not beleaguer the

Gargoyle... not beleaguer the point but I think that they didn't really get a bite... it sounds as if these folks (QFP ) have the upper hand in negotiations as the laws of supply and demand dictate.

I also seriously doubt there is a contract involved at this pay level.

JMO

rmwhitley
5547
Points
rmwhitley 03/30/14 - 06:10 pm
0
0
Race saturation
Unpublished

does play a part in where a qualified medical examiner chooses to reside. Augusta is so divided along racial lines that decisions cannot be made without an unwarranted amount of jaw jacking.

KSL
134593
Points
KSL 03/30/14 - 06:23 pm
0
2
Riverman1
87014
Points
Riverman1 03/30/14 - 06:36 pm
2
1
17 autopsies in 2 months can

17 autopsies in 2 months can be handled by a part time position or the private clinic in Newberry.

Sweet son
10747
Points
Sweet son 03/30/14 - 07:11 pm
2
1
Refrigerated truck not necessary!

Get a van from the county shop, put county gas in it and pay someone to drive it to Atlanta and back! No way would it cost $500 a trip.

No body is going to decompose because of a 2 hour trip to Decatur.

Probably can establish a list from part time funeral home workers or others who might be retired and want a few dollars for a day's work.

Not rocket science.

DoggieMom
244
Points
DoggieMom 03/30/14 - 07:45 pm
2
0
Medical Examiner

Having a family member who originally trained as a pathologist, being a Medical Examiner is a gruesome line of work, with high burn-out rates, & changing careers to something less demanding, both physically & emotionally is quite common. Or changing careers to something more rewarding is also common!

TV shows & movies have glamorized this profession, and yet low pay & 24/7 call makes it very undesirable as a full time job.

The pay offered in Augusta is pretty low, as a true ME will show up at the scene of every questionable death &/or crime scene, & supervise evidence collection & extensive scene evaluation.
On top of that, methods of evaluation of evidence have increased & become much more precise & time consuming in the past 20 years.

If Augusta wants a full time, well trained ME, then consider Doubling the pay, setting high standards for the position, & you might get someone who is interested, qualified, licensed, & has the 10+ years experience that is necessary for hiring an excellent ME for Augusta.
There's enough crime deaths in Augusta & the surrounding areas to warrant a full time position for a Medical Examiner.

itsanotherday1
45482
Points
itsanotherday1 03/30/14 - 08:20 pm
0
0
RM. Maybe so if our stuff was

RM. Maybe so if our stuff was all he had to do. He is already doing a bunch for SC.

DoggieMom
244
Points
DoggieMom 03/30/14 - 08:22 pm
1
0
Autopsy Requirements

To the comments about requiring a family member to pay for the autopsy, that is illegal in most states. Any physician ordered, or State required autopsy is covered by state funds.

Autopsy is required by law in most states for the following reasons (and refrigeration IS required to preserve important details).

Some of these reasons include:

1) Any suspicious or sudden, unexpected death (victim was not ill, or injury is suspected)
2) Inmate death
3) Infant or child death
4) Possible foul play
5) Family request
6) Possible unknown medical condition
7) Unexpected death during medical, dental, OB, or surgical procedures
8) Death occurs during experimental procedures
9) Possible suicide or murder
10) Motor Vehicle Accidental death
11) Firearm death
12) Other circumstances, as defined by State Law
13) Death where financial or legal matters are concerned
14) Death is a genetic condition might be present
15) Documentation of suspected disease, not confirmed during life (such as Alzheimer's).
16) Any death where the potential for litigation may exist.

In these situations, the state is required to cover the cost of autopsy, & through investigation into the death.
Collection & dissection of body parts, fluids, microscopic inspection, tissue samples, etc. may take many weeks to evaluate.
Toxicologists or other specialists may need to be consulted to give a complete diagnosis of reason of death.

A well qualified Medical Examiner will make this process more precise, give a complete reason of death, & assist in prosecution if necessary.

Little Lamb
47002
Points
Little Lamb 03/30/14 - 08:58 pm
0
1
Doggiemom’s List

16) Any death where the potential for litigation may exist.

Wouldn’t that be each and every death in Georgia?

Little Lamb
47002
Points
Little Lamb 03/30/14 - 09:02 pm
0
1
Doggiemom’s List

5) Family request.

Oh, come on, now. If the family requests it, the family should pony up for it!

DoggieMom
244
Points
DoggieMom 03/30/14 - 11:32 pm
1
0
Family Request

FYI-If a caretaker has named themselves as executor & beneficiary of the deceased's assets, every family has the right to request an autopsy.

I hope this situation never happens to you, Little Lamb.

It's a nightmare that could take years of litigation to resolve.
The only "winners" are lawyers, unless an autopsy & inquest were requested at the time of death by the family. If they fail to request an autopsy, a "caregiver" can quite literally get away with murder.

Back to Top

Top headlines

Charges for sex offender

A man convicted of sex charges in Columbia County, who then went to prison for child molestation in south Georgia is back behind bars.
Search Augusta jobs