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.
Pfeifer said the agency will work to stay on top of those payments in the future.
Also during Thursday's meeting, board members discussed resources for district investigators working outside metropolitan areas of the state.
Several months ago, Dr. Andrew Sibley, who was serving as interim state medical examiner, raised concerns about efficiency and compensation methods for those investigators. Some were logging 10-hour workweeks and being paid for full-time work, Sibley said.
On Thursday, the board discussed ways to better utilize district investigators. Their ideas included expanding the jurisdiction for each investigator, creating a “hybrid system” that could include full-time and part-time investigators, or switching to an on-call system where the closest investigator to a case would respond.
The board's chairman appointed a three-person committee to assess the situation and provide a report to the board during a future meeting. The state has 10 full-time district investigators who work outside the Oklahoma City and Tulsa metro areas. The agency has positions on the books for five more field investigators but lacks funds to hire people for those positions, Pfeifer said.
He said the district investigators are “crucial.” Some days, some non-metro areas of the state aren't covered.
“These gaps bother me,” Pfeifer said. “Even on days that we've got adequate or fairly good coverage, there are still parts of the state that aren't covered.”