Medical examiner’s accreditation at risk in budget impasse

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Connecticut’s budget impasse is putting the state medical examiner’s office at risk of completely losing its accreditation, a prospect that could cast some doubt on the agency’s credibility and raise questions in court about its findings in murder cases.

The office has until Wednesday to show the National Association of Medical Examiners that it has addressed a short-staffing problem that has resulted in the agency’s seven forensic pathologists performing more than 325 autopsies a year — the limit set by the association’s accreditation standards.

Dr. James Gill, the chief medical examiner, said a large increase in drug overdoses has overwhelmed his office and he needs two more forensic pathologists to regain full accreditation. The office was placed on partial accreditation status earlier this year because of staffing and other issues.

But the state has yet to approve a budget for the fiscal year that began July 1. Gill said a Republican budget plan approved by lawmakers earlier this month includes funding for the two positions. But Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has promised to veto it. Each pathologist job would cost the state about $180,000 a year.

Gill said his office planned to submit paperwork to the national association Tuesday to show it has addressed other problems, including a lack of refrigerated space to store bodies. He said he will ask the association to retain the medical examiner’s office’s provisional accreditation until the budget impasse is resolved. If the committee refuses, the office could lose accreditation completely, he said.

“Not being fully accredited means you’re not meeting minimal standards for death investigations. So that raises a credibility issue,” Gill said Tuesday. “If you’re handling too many cases, there’s an increased risk for making a mistake.”

Chris McClure, a spokesman for the governor’s budget office, said the state has had to cut spending and reduce services in a variety of areas because of slow economic growth.

“Dr. Gill and his staff confront some of the worst outcomes of the opioid crisis and they should be commended for the services they provide,” McClure said. “We have attempted to provide what we can, where we can to fulfill our obligations and needs — not meet the demands of an optional, outside accrediting body that accredits fewer than 4 percent of medicolegal death investigation offices in the United States.”

The medical examiner’s office investigates all violent, sudden and unexpected deaths in Connecticut, and pathologists often testify at murder trials about how victims died.

From 2010 to 2016, the number of autopsies performed by the office increased 70 percent to nearly 2,400, while the number of forensic pathologists remained the same at seven.

The surge in autopsies has corresponded to increasing deaths linked to the powerful opioid fentanyl — a problem seen across the country. From 2012 to 2016, accidental drug deaths soared from 355 to 917 in the state.

There were 538 accidental drug deaths the first half of this year, putting the state on pace for an 18 percent increase over last year.

Some prosecutors and defense lawyers agree the accreditation issue could come up at trials.

“I don’t think the office losing accreditation would affect the admissibility of the individual pathologists’ testimony, but defense attorneys could cross examine them about it,” said Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane, the state’s top prosecutor. “The individual doctors’ qualifications should not be impacted. They can still testify as experts.”

Vicki Hutchinson, an attorney and treasurer of the Connecticut Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, said one concern is staffing and budget problems affecting the accuracy of medical examiner reports or causing delays.

If the office loses accreditation, “then every autopsy and every medical examiner would be more thoroughly examined by the defense,” she said. “I couldn’t tell what the impact would be on a jury. It’s not something that has come up yet.”

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