Oregon counties prepare for changes to death investigations

Big changes are coming soon for death investigations in Oregon, and now local counties are scrambling to prepare.
Published: Jun. 8, 2023 at 6:47 AM PDT
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MULTNOMAH COUNTY, Ore. (KPTV) - Big changes are coming soon for death investigations in Oregon, and now local counties are scrambling to prepare.

The Oregon State Medical Examiner’s Office says it no longer has the capacity or staffing to keep up with record numbers of mysterious deaths, murders and autopsy requests. So this summer, much of the often painstaking and taxing work will be shifted down to local counties - some haven’t staffed a medical examiner for years.

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“That’s one of the new things for us, hiring a physician to serve as our county medical examiner,” said Dr. Teresa Everson, Interim Deputy Health Officer for Multnomah County.

Everson says the county received word of the changes this past February, spurring a whirlwind of planning to soon take on the work of determining causes of deaths, signing death certificates, and performing physical examinations of hundreds of bodies each year.

It comes as the county, in recent years, has dealt with a spike in deaths requiring more thorough investigations.

According to county data, since 2019, there’s been a nearly 40% increase in the number of deaths assigned to death investigators, and a 75% increase in cases requiring investigators to respond to death scenes.

According to Everson, some of the increase is tied to COVID-19.

Another big factor - drug addiction.

“We’re seeing a year-over-year increase in overdose deaths, typically tied to fentanyl, many of them are polysubstance,” Everson said.

The county health department says the increased workload will require at least three new staff members, including a part-time physician to serve as the county medical examiner. At minimum, the county says it will need an additional $430,000 to fund the program and possibly more to hire other support staff.

Other costs could include paying fees to continue storing bodies at the state morgue.

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It’s not yet clear where most of that money will come from.

“The timing is a bit of a challenge. We did have time to at least make a request for the physician piece of this, so we already have in place funding for a part-time physician to do this medical examiner death certification piece, but we are still exploring internal options for funding,” Everson said.

The state medical examiner will still be charged with performing autopsies and handling extra-sensitive cases, like murders or the deaths of children and infants.

Details to set specific case guidelines are still in the works.

“That’s part of what’s been developing over the past few months, what’s that threshold for what will come to us and what will still go to the state,” said Everson.

The state medical examiner’s office says the changes will allow its forensic pathologists to focus in on the most important deaths, often tied to crimes.

The goal is to improve data collection surrounding all deaths, while also providing more timely information for law enforcement, prosecutors and those who’ve lost loved ones.

“There’s information that families may need from us, that attorneys may need from us, that folks might need from us on a more time-sensitive base and we’re looking to make sure there is no disruption in that service that we provide to the public.”

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There are roughly a dozen other counties that are now in the same boat as Multnomah County, racing to get plans and staff in place before the changes in July.

FOX 12 also reached out to the Washington County Health Department regarding the changes. A spokeswoman says the county is still determining how it will impact their work and what the county’s needs may be.