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Oklahoma medical examiner says his office is making strides

BY DARLA SLIPKE Published: August 12, 2011

The state medical examiner's office has reduced its autopsy backlog by half during the past three months, Chief Medical Examiner Eric Pfeifer said Thursday.

Last week, the agency had reduced its autopsy backlog to 169 cases — down from 320 cases in June, Pfeifer told members of the Board of Medicolegal Investigations. At that pace, the backlog could be gone before the end of the year.

“We've worked pretty hard at fixing the way things have been done here,” Pfeifer said.

The agency's six pathologists have been working longer hours to help reduce the backlog. That solution is not ideal because it puts more pressure on a system that already is stressed to the limit, Pfeifer said.

But it is a step in the right direction.

The agency would need about 12 or 14 pathologists to do the job it should be doing, Pfeifer said.

The medical examiner's office typically releases bodies to families within 24 to 48 hours, but the full autopsy report takes much longer to produce, said Cherokee Ballard, a spokeswoman for the agency. The backlog problem stems from not having enough pathologists on staff, Ballard said. They are left handling more cases than recommended by the National Association of Medical Examiners.

In June, the turnaround time for autopsy cases was 77 days, Pfeifer said.

He said staff members at the agency have been making other improvements, including documenting everything that comes through the office and improving accounting practices. In the past, the agency's accounting system has been “a total mess,” Pfeifer said.

Since 2008, funeral homes owe $224,250 to the agency. Last month, the agency issued 154 letters seeking back payments. In response, the agency has received $22,650 in cremation fees and $3,100 in out-of-state permits. This week, the agency sent out 127 more letters billing $122,800.

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