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Pathologist looks to resuscitate state's Oklahoma medical examiner's office

Two years into his new gig as Oklahoma chief medical examiner, Dr. Eric Pfeifer said he's made all the fixes he can make without gaining a new building.
BY ZEKE CAMPFIELD Published: March 31, 2013

In 2008, seven pathologists averaged almost 2,600 cases apiece. Last year, five averaged almost 4,400.

Despite two less pathologists on staff, the agency saw its caseload increase from about 18,000 annually to 22,000 over that time period.

But the extra push improved the number of cases finalized within 90 days from 70 to 78 percent, according to agency data.

And help is on the way.

Budget boost

The new appropriations approved last year boosted the agency's annual budget to $7.2 million. A million dollars was spent on equipment upgrades — new computer systems, a digital X-ray machine, and an “evidence hanging machine” that replaced hangers in a broom closet.

The rest was spent hiring five new doctors, Pfeifer said.

“The problem with that is it takes about a year, sometimes a year and a half, to move their families from out of state or wherever they're coming from, so although we've hired more only one of those is in place,” he said.

Still, these improvements pale compared to what it will take to bring the office into full compliance, he said.

The agency needs a budget of about $13-14 million for that, he said, and perhaps more importantly it needs a new facility.

Space is so limited in the morgue at the Oklahoma City office that examiners have developed a special protocol just for moving around the autopsy tables. Ceiling panels have rotted out where the roof leaks water.

The autopsy tables themselves — three, where Pfeifer says there should be at least six — are so outdated their fumigation systems hardly work and the drains underneath spill over with fluids.

Last year, the office's coolers shut down during the peak of summer heat, forcing examiners to move its bodies into refrigerated trucks.

A plan to issue bonds for a new building on the University of Central Oklahoma campus in Edmond — estimated at $42 million, including equipment — was blocked by lawmakers in the House of Representatives last year.

A revised plan, which would have included the building in a master lease program, bonded as a package with several other university projects, was also met with skepticism.

Moving to new offices

A bill passed by the Senate earlier this month reinstated the proposed facility back into the state's proposed bonding plans, but House leaders have again expressed reluctance to borrow the money.

A spokesman for House Speaker T.W. Shannon said the working plan is to include a new medical examiner facility in its eight-year infrastructure plan.

Pfeifer said whatever the plan, he needs the money sooner rather than later.

“Either way you have to appropriate the money through a bonding issue of some sort or pay cash for it, and I think that's ultimately a House issue,” he said. “We've been talking to Speaker Shannon and other House members and I think everyone agrees we need a new structure, but again I guess we'll just leave that up to the end of the session and see if that happens.”

He said once the office moves into a new facility it could take six months to a year to regain accreditation.


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