Closings increase caseload

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Tina Scoggins said she'll never forget the day she awoke to find her husband of 15 years not breathing.

"It was shocking, and I still can't get over it," she said of the death of 43-year-old Stephen Scoggins.

Now, Mrs. Scoggins and others have encountered problems with death certificates. Official death certificates are being delayed by weeks, and sometimes months, making it difficult for family members to process life insurance or Social Security benefits.

In Mrs. Scoggins' case, it has been more than two months, and as of last week the certificate was still pending.

"Even if I give a death certificate and it says 'pending autopsy results' ... the insurance won't pay off on it," Richmond County Coroner Grover Tuten said.

The problem locally is that the Georgia Bureau of Investigation's Augusta Crime Lab has now taken on cases from five more counties -- the result of state labs being closed in Summerville, Columbus and Moultrie, Mr. Tuten said. There are now 19 counties being handled by the Augusta lab, he said.

Although autopsies aren't being affected, delays are being seen with toxicology and blood tests that follow in cases where the autopsy doesn't find an obvious cause of death.

In Richmond County, Mr. Tuten said, such test results have been taking an average of 12 weeks, but some have been delayed as long as 25 weeks. Before the state cuts, Mr. Tuten said such test results took about four or five weeks.

He said the Augusta lab is doing all it can, but the added caseload is a challenge.

Columbia County Coroner Vernon Collins said he has had some cases take as long as three months, adding that the wait could grow to as long as a half-year.

"They don't have enough histologists," he said. "I guess they're just overwhelmed and the government is just cutting money back. It's not going to make it any better. It's going to make it worse."

In a recent e-mail from the Georgia's Coroners Association, director Ted Bearden expressed concerns from coroners statewide about the closing of GBI forensic and medical examiner locations.

"Coroners in Georgia are elected to serve the people in their communities, and this will place an additional hardship on them to perform their duties while maintaining dignity and respect of the families involved," he said.

But GBI spokesman John Bankhead said the situation is not as dire as it might appear.

"It's not really a crisis. At least it shouldn't be," he said. "The cuts are mostly impacting labs in Moultrie and Summerville. Nothing has changed in respect to autopsies."

Mr. Bankhead said the budget cuts are being made because of a state revenue shortfall that he described as "the worst I've ever seen."

Mr. Tuten said another result of the added demands on the Augusta Crime Lab is that justice in some criminal cases might be delayed.

"That's slowing down DUI cases," he said. "He can't be prosecuted until we do toxicology and get those results back. The victims are held up, and the criminal justice system is slowed down."

In South Carolina, budget cuts have not trickled down to the county coroner's office in Aiken County. If cuts to the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division have delayed lab-test results, Aiken County Coroner Tim Carlton said, his office hasn't seen it.

"Ours have always been slow, so it's not something we'd probably even notice," he said. "As far as us doing business, it hasn't affected us."

Morris News Service contributed to this article.

Reach Preston Sparks at (706) 823-3338 or preston.sparks@augustachronicle.com.

Comments (10) Add comment
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freespeech
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freespeech 11/17/08 - 07:57 am
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Nothing but excuses!!

Nothing but excuses!! Sounds like the Social Security Administration, and every other federal and state agency. Families need to get insurance funds to pay for expenses and buy food. I'd bet the real problem is non-productive lazy staff that spend more time complaining about the work than actually doing anything.

Ginette
3
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Ginette 11/17/08 - 08:12 am
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viewpoint, that is just a

viewpoint, that is just a brilliant statement! The state is in budget cuts... trying to do the same work with less resources. Of course there will be a slowdown. You can thank Perdue for this one, too. There is always money for him and his DOT chief pal to take a trip to Spain on the taxpayers dime, but not for providing services to the citizens of Georgia. You can expect the waits to get worse. Perdue has tried to run Georgia like a business. Therefore, when income (tax collections) are down, he wants to cut services. Don't just assume people are lazy and non-productive.

MJDW
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MJDW 11/17/08 - 09:15 am
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Ginette, what was the trip to

Ginette, what was the trip to Spain for?

GDC_MAN
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GDC_MAN 11/17/08 - 10:15 am
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MJDW..Please look at article

MJDW..Please look at article http://augustachronicle.com/stories/092508/met_477077.shtml

Perdue and about 20 others went on trip to drum up state business - for about a hundred grand!

Little Lamb
47986
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Little Lamb 11/17/08 - 01:01 pm
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Perhaps many of the people

Perhaps many of the people who are clamoring for "quickie" autopsy results are hoping to get insurance payouts for a spouse who committed suicide. It is better to wait for the lab results to come in rather than a premature insurance payment.

Ginette
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Ginette 11/17/08 - 01:03 pm
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According to the article

According to the article located here:
http://stories.globalatlanta.com/2008stories/016305.html

"Mr. Perdue has taken 16 international trips and visited 18 different countries since taking office in 2003."

I didn't realize being governor of Georgia was such an international affair.

gnx
7
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gnx 11/17/08 - 01:59 pm
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It may be better to wait for

It may be better to wait for proper results, but 60-90 days and longer is simply unacceptable unless there are obvious circumstances indicating the deceased was a victim of a crime. What this article doesn't mention is that not only do the death certificates take a long time but often the lab will hold the bodies for a month or more if they decide they need to do so, even if the deceased was under a doctor's care and cause of death is more than obvious. If you think it's bad waiting a long time for a death certificate try waiting six weeks to receive your loved one back so you can bury them. It's a long, cruel, miserable wait and open casket usually is no longer an option.

uncleshirt
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uncleshirt 11/17/08 - 03:08 pm
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We have money to bailout the

We have money to bailout the Auto industry, Wall street, and any other coporation pleading poverty. But we don't have enough to fund needed services like the Crime Lab. I think our government is beyond repair.

enana03
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enana03 11/17/08 - 09:56 pm
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Sonny has done what Sonny

Sonny has done what Sonny wanted at the expense of those of us who pay his salary. He has cut state budgets to the bare bone yet still expects the same level of service. It's true that he has never denied himself anything and at our expense no less. I will be glad when that clown's term is over. I didn't vote for him, but it did not change the outcome. A crook is a crook is a crook! What a shame these poor folks have to wait so long to receive insurance payments that would enable them to pay expenses and have closure.

aw8ngjustice
22
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aw8ngjustice 11/20/08 - 01:45 am
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If illegal drugs were

If illegal drugs were involved in the death mentioned in this article, she should not get any insurance money or Social Security benefits.

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