Governor Charlie Baker last month quietly reappointed the state’s chief medical examiner to a new five-year term, a move that could keep the executive branch’s highest-paid employee in place through his successor’s upcoming term.
Dr. Mindy J. Hull’s new term is slated to stretch into October 2027, according to a brief reappointment letter Baker sent Hull on Oct. 21 and provided by his administration. State officials confirmed Hull’s reappointment in response to Globe questions.
The second-term Republican, who is slated to leave office in January, first tapped Hull to lead the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in 2017, and marked her selection then with a press announcement. Hull’s initial five-year term ended late last month.
Terrence M. Reidy, Baker’s public safety secretary, praised Hull in a statement to the Globe, saying she has led by “prioritizing excellence, innovation, and compassion.” A Baker administration spokeswoman declined to address questions of whether the governor had considered leaving the appointment to Governor-elect Maura Healey, a Democrat who is slated to begin her own four-year term on Jan. 5 and inherit the power to make a range of appointments across her new administration.
An aide to Healey declined to comment Wednesday on Hull’s reappointment.
Under Hull, who makes nearly $422,000 a year, the office has touted a dramatic improvement in turnaround times in producing reports and death certificates. More than 90 percent are now completed within 90 days, meeting a key national standard that helped the office secure full accreditation for the first time in 2018. State officials said Hull has also significantly reduced a backlog of cases she inherited.
The office’s primary charge is to investigate the causes of violent, suspicious, or unexplained deaths, as well as to provide information to grief-stricken families.
“We are grateful to Dr. Hull for her professionalism, service, and empathy and look forward to her continued contributions to public health and safety,” Reidy said.
But in making those strides, Hull’s office has significantly scaled back how often it conducts autopsies in favor of less-rigorous testing, to the point it has among the lowest autopsy rates in the country among statewide medical examiner offices.
Such a decline is not limited to Massachusetts, as growing caseloads wrack an industry starving for medical examiners. But experts have warned that doing fewer autopsies inherently risks missing causes of death that less-rigorous methods can’t rule out, particularly among suspected overdoses.
In March, Hull’s office reversed its findings in the death of a State Police trooper, prompting prosecutors to drop motor vehicle homicide charges against a man accused of driving into a state trooper years before his death. The medical examiner handling the case did not conduct an autopsy before determining the trooper’s death was likely not only caused by the injuries he suffered in the crash — as she originally found — but also a rare and fatal brain disease.
The Baker administration also has resisted legislative efforts to add requirements that Hull personally review certain cases. The Massachusetts House passed a measure in April as part of its annual budget proposal that would have required that Hull sign off on any rulings or revisions made by those performing autopsies in her office on a child under the age of 2.
The measure’s proponents argued it would inject a level of accountability into an office that has faced repeated criticisms over the years for its handling of young children’s deaths.
Hull’s base salary is also higher than any other executive branch employee and anyone on the state payroll outside the University of Massachusetts system — a level of pay, critics argue, that should itself invite more responsibility. The office’s state-funded budget has, too, continually grown in recent years, and reached $16.9 million this year, a roughly 75 percent jump from five years earlier.
Legislative leaders ultimately cut the measure requiring Hull’s review from the spending bill they passed this summer after Reidy urged them not to include it, arguing Hull, a certified pathologist, serves “far more in an executive role than a medical one.”
A new governor faces limitations in removing a predecessor’s appointments should he or she want to. Under state law, a governor can remove an appointee “for cause,” which the state’s Supreme Judicial Court said in 2008 could include a “general finding of poor performance,” including incompetence, inefficiency, or poor supervision.
In that decision, the court ruled that then-Governor Deval Patrick had the authority to fire Dr. Mark A. Flomenbaum as the state’s chief medical examiner after his office misplaced a body of a Cape Cod man in April 2007.
Shortly after his termination, a consulting firm hired by the state said Flomenbaum‘s office was on the “verge of collapse” from extreme mismanagement. Earlier that year, the Globe had reported that bodies were overflowing the storage areas at the office and being stacked in refrigerator trucks parked outside the building.
Flomenbaum — who had been appointed by Patrick’s predecessor, Mitt Romney — had contended that the dismissal breached a five-year contract he signed with the Romney administration. Flomenbaum had been hired to turn around an office that had endured years of underfunding and controversy, his lawsuit argued, including an episode in which it sent the wrong set of eyeballs to an outside specialist for tests.
Matt Stout can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.