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Connecticut office of chief medical examiner to be put on probation

It is losing accreditation amid an increase in drug-related deaths in the state

CNN —  

In a year that’s seen an increase of drug overdoses and budget cuts in Connecticut, the state’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner has been told it will lose its national accreditation and be placed on probation by the National Association of Medical Examiners.

Chief Medical Examiner Dr. James Gill was told of the decision in a letter (PDF) dated October 13 from Dr. Barbara Wolf, chairwoman of the National Association of Medical Examiners Inspection and Accreditation Committee.

The decision came after a review of materials the office had submitted ahead of its scheduled five-year accreditation inspection. According to the association’s letter, “Phase II deficiencies will result in the demotion of the (medical examiner’s office) to provisional accreditation, which is only valid for a period of one year.”

“Loss of accreditation means that the office does not meet the minimum standards for an adequate medicolegal death investigation system. An insufficient number of staff results in an increased risk of mistakes,” Gill said. “Mistakes by a medical examiner’s office put people’s lives at risk, can result in the innocent imprisoned and cost millions of dollars in civil claims.”

The association’s letter notes that the medical examiner’s office “faces many challenges related to inadequate funding and insufficient staffing. Most notably, there are insufficient numbers of forensic pathologists, medicolegal death investigators, and clerical personnel for the volume of cases in Connecticut.”

An increase in accidental drug intoxication deaths has put a strain on the office’s staff. In 2015, there were 729 drug-related deaths in the state, compared with 568 in 2014. The office is projecting a total of 888 drug-related deaths in 2016.

“Dr. Gill and his staff have the unenviable duty of facing the worst of the opioid crisis which has increased the number of autopsies the Chief Medical Examiner must perform,” Chris McClure, spokesman for the state’s Office of Policy and Management, said in a statement Thursday.

“Review of the most recent data reveals that the number of autopsies being performed by each of the seven forensic pathologists exceeds 325, which will result in a Phase II deficiency,” the association’s letter said. Such standards are essential, according to the association’s Inspection and Accreditation Policies and Procedures Manual.

Though the office is working with a small staff, recruitment efforts are ongoing. McClure said his agency approved the hiring of a lab assistant and a physician in the past month.

The loss of accreditation will have effects across the state.

“Families will suffer,” said Dr. David Fowler, president of the National Association of Medical Examiners. “The law enforcement and judicial system will be compromised. Quality is going to be questionable. Imagine if you are waiting for a death certificate to get an insurance claim, and the person who is deceased was the sole breadwinner of the house, and now it could take months to get that result. Families need closure. Insurance companies need documents to close estates. Human beings do not cease to be human being when they die. They at least get the right to an accurate death certificate.”

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    Police departments across the state have been spread thin as a result of the increase in drug-related deaths. When asked how the loss of accreditation would affect law enforcement, Trooper Tyler Weerden, a spokesman for the Connecticut State Police, said, “We are not commenting on their accreditation. We are accredited through (The Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies). Regardless of what happens, we are still going to collect evidence and submit it as we normally would. It is not going to change how we do our investigations.”

    In January, the medical examiner’s office will have an on-site inspection and expects to lose full accreditation.

    According to Dr. Fowler, “everything is oriented around that inspection in January. Based on the data that has been entered for the inspection, they are not eligible for full accreditation, only provisional accreditation.” he said. “That provisional accreditation is only for one year. If there is no evidence of a good faith attempt to fix any issues, then their accreditation will be completely withdrawn.”

    Gill said, “If we can get the funding to staff the office appropriately in that time (one year), we could avoid complete loss of accreditation and may even be able to be fully accredited again.”

    According to Gill, the letter, as well as the budget and staffing issues, have been shared with the executive and legislative branches of the Connecticut government.

    CNN’s Ricardo Montero-Hernandez contributed to this report.