Mecklenburg Republican Sen. Jeff Tarte has it right: “Everyone is entitled to know how and why somebody passed away, particularly if it’s criminal and particularly if you’ve got an insurance claim.”
Therein lies one reason behind Tarte’s good start on improving a flawed medical examiner system in North Carolina. The state invests about half, per capita, what other states do in the system that determines the cause of death in cases that are suspicious or violent or when someone dies alone. Findings can have an impact on criminal charges, on public health threats and on insurance claims.
A Charlotte Observer investigation found the system lacking on a number of levels, as it operates through the medical examiner’s office with mostly volunteers who are part time. The Observer found examiners overworked and underpaid at $100 per exam. In 9 cases out of 10, examiners didn’t visit the death scene. Mistakes have been made, including one in which a man who was not deceased was zipped into a body bag.
When families have to wait months to find out a cause of death, they suffer unnecessarily and sometimes have trouble collecting insurance money the deceased person intended for them. In addition, crimes can go undetected if an exam is hurried or if the examiner hasn’t been to the scene.
Tarte proposes a new system of full-time examiners, working out of five regional offices, and they would have to visit death scenes with only limited exceptions. His plan would cost $20 million to $40 million a year, which would be funded by the Department of Health and Human Services’ budget. It sounds good, but Dr. Patrick Lantz, a forensic pathologist at the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, isn’t sure the “good start” will provide enough pathologists.
Tarte rightly says that providing adequate medical examiner services is “a core service the state must provide.” But he and other lawmakers also must provide the money to do the work thoroughly.