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Drug overdose deaths taxing US medical examiners and coroners

HARTFORD — Soaring numbers of drug overdose deaths are adding to the woes already plaguing medical examiners and coroners, resulting in a shortage of spots to store bodies and long waits for autopsies and toxicology tests.

The Connecticut medical examiner’s office has considered renting a refrigerated truck to store bodies because its regular storage area has at times neared capacity. In Wisconsin, the Milwaukee County medical examiner’s office sometimes has to put bodies on Army-style cots in its refrigerated storage area because it runs out of gurneys. The Hamilton County coroner’s office in Cincinnati has a 100-day backlog of DNA testing for police drug investigations, largely because of the increase in deaths by overdose.


Medical examiners and coroners say overdose deaths are adding to a strain on their offices that already includes a surge of urban violence, inadequate facilities, budget problems, and a shortage of forensic pathologists who are qualified to perform autopsies.

‘‘There are many, many parts of the country that have substantial problems,’’ said Dr. David Fowler, Maryland’s chief medical examiner and president of the National Association of Medical Examiners, referring to medical examiner and coroner offices. ‘‘I think the drug overdoses have substantially increased the problems.’’

A record 47,055 people died from drug overdoses in the United States in 2014, according to the latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The number was up 7 percent from 2013, spurred by large increases in heroin and opioid painkiller deaths. Reports indicate overdoses continue to increase.

There are about 500 forensic pathologists in the country, but at least 1,000 are needed. A major cause of the shortage is that many medical students are opting for higher-paying jobs in regular pathology jobs.

Medical examiners and coroners generally investigate all violent deaths in their jurisdictions, as well as suspicious and unexpected deaths that don’t occur in hospitals. The most notable changes resulting from inundated offices have been longer waits for families to learn how their loved ones died and delays in criminal investigations and court cases, medical examiners say.