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Maryland’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner is facing a staffing shortage that has led to a delay in completing autopsies.
“Bodies have literally been piling up in the offices — in the halls,” Del. Kirill Reznik (D-Montgomery) said at a House Appropriations Committee hearing Friday.
A union official told Maryland Matters during a phone interview Friday evening that a 30-year veteran of the medical examiner’s office has never seen such a backup.
During previous bad spells, the official said, the office would store the remains of up to 25 people at a time; now the medical examiner is seeing overflows of up to 150.
“[The] Hogan administration has let the OCME and it[s] staff fall into a state of destitution,” American Federation of State County and Municipal Workers Council 3 President Patrick Moran said in a statement Friday. “They cannot recruit because they refuse to compensate people fairly and they cannot execute the mission of the agency, therefore the morgue is at capacity with no relief in sight.”
Maryland Matters reached out to a spokesperson for Gov. Larry Hogan (R) after Friday’s hearing for comment, but one was not made immediately available.
The governor’s office and health officials answered other questions about the office’s operations earlier in the week.
“Although there are shortages throughout the [Office of the Chief Medical Examiner], the shortage of forensic pathologists available to work as assistant medical examiners is hampering the ability to do a sufficient number of autopsies at this time,” Andy Owens of the Department of Health said in a statement.
At a news conference earlier in the week, Hogan acknowledged that the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner has been having a “problem” with an increased number of decedents, “but that’s not COVID related,” he said.
“…Really those cases are mostly homicides and or opioid overdose,” he said.
At the Friday hearing, Reznik confronted David Brinkley, the secretary of the Department of Budget and Management, saying that the problem has become so severe that, if decertification of accreditation were not suspended, “we would be decertified from accreditation this year.”
Asked what the state is doing to alleviate the shortage, Hogan spokesman Michael Ricci said earlier this week that the office is using “as many per diem forensic pathologists as possible while working to recruit more full-time pathologists.” He also said that the state has a fellowship program to train more assistant medical examiners.
Dealing with the shortage is more complex than other areas, where the state could take action to expedite licenses or bring in retired practitioners, Ricci said in an email exchange. “There are only about 750 pathologists in the country who can perform this kind of work. It is highly specialized,” he wrote.
Brinkley offered a similar response to Reznik: “Maryland is not unique,” he said, noting that states across the country are having the same problem.
Brinkley told the committee that the pay to work at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner isn’t as competitive as other positions for recent medical school grads, but said that the state has “made some accommodations.”
He pointed to a new facility built to house the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner a few years ago.
“We built a nice new building for them that then started falling down because of some construction issues with that,” Brinkley said.
“I recognize that we’re back up to another challenge,” he continued.
Sen. Clarence K. Lam (D-Howard) said during a phone interview Thursday that the shortage at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner “was an entirely preventable problem.”
“They could have prevented this by actually hiring … an adequate number of forensic pathologists to be able to properly perform the necessary number of autopsies … here in the state,” said Lam, a physician.
The state is facing a record number of employee vacancies across the board.
Reznik pointed to other examples during the Friday briefing. He said that Marylanders aren’t receiving benefits because of understaffing at the Department of Human Services, and that a shortage of security at state hospitals is so poor that people don’t want to work there out of concern for their safety.
“We have been having these problems every year,” Reznik said. “So this is not COVID; this is not … the employment crisis that we’ve seen over the last couple of years. This is something the department has seen over and over again.”
According to Jason Kramer, a personnel analyst for the Department of Legislative Services, there are approximately 6,000 job vacancies among state agencies and 2,200 in Maryland colleges and universities.
“That’s more than there have ever been in our records” dating back to 2008, he said.