Sunday, June 24, 2007

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CORPUS CHRISTI — The Nueces County Medical Examiner's Office may lose certification and be forced to delay critical reports without more workspace and a larger staff in the next two years, officials said.

The office is forced to ask the Commissioners Court for extra resources estimated at $640,000 for the next fiscal year to manage a rapidly increasing workload and national recertification in 2009 that mandates a maximum ratio of autopsies performed for each forensic pathologist, said Nueces County Medical Examiner Dr. Ray Fernandez. That estimate includes a one-time cost of $500,000 for a 2,000-square-foot addition to the office and hiring another pathologist with a $140,000 annual salary.

As medical examiner, Fernandez is responsible for investigating the deaths of all people who die violently, suddenly or unexpectedly. Since 1996, the number of cases reported to the office increased by 54 percent to 1,528 deaths in 2006 from 990 cases in 1996, according to county medical examiner data. The escalating number of cases results from increasing population, more immigrant traffic in the area and a higher frequency of death reports from surrounding counties, Fernandez said.

"The volume of work has grown tremendously," Fernandez said. "Right now I'm the chief examiner, the associate and the one who locks up the place."

While the office isn't backlogged, it is getting close and may start seeing delays in autopsy reports, death certificates and other documents if something isn't done, Fernandez said. These documents directly impact residents in the ability to execute an estate and file insurance claims, he said.

A delay in autopsy reports -- or if the office isn't recertified during its next review scheduled for fall 2009 -- could jeopardize the prosecution of homicides and police investigations, said District Attorney Carlos Valdez. Prosecutors are unable to prove a homicide case without the testimony and findings of the medical examiner, Valdez said.

"We're talking about the criminal justice system -- ultimately protection of the public," he said. "If something breaks down in the criminal justice system, it affects everything and in the end it may cause guilty people to walk free."

The Nueces County office is one of five statewide that are certified by the National Association of Medical Examiners out of 13 offices statewide, according to the association. According to Valdez, that certification adds a degree of credibility during criminal trials.

certified office

Medical examiner's offices, along with all statewide crime labs, were required to be certified under a 2005 state law, Fernandez said. However, the state granted a temporary exemption to medical examiners before the law took effect.

The Nueces County Office received certification by the National Association of Medical Examiners in November 2004 to gear up for what is expected to be a requirement in coming years. The exemption still is in effect but may be dropped during the 2009 legislative session, Fernandez said.

One of the certification provisions bars having more than 325 autopsies for each forensic pathologist, and the recommended maximum is no more than 250 autopsies each.

In 2006, the Nueces County office performed 328 autopsies stemming from Nueces County, which does not include autopsies of bodies from the 16 surrounding counties the office serves.

Data for autopsies from surrounding counties in the past few years was not immediately available, but likely add 100 to 150 autopsies per year, Fernandez said.

"We are at a crossroads here -- we're either going to move resources, maintain accreditation and be in compliance or expect to see delays," Fernandez said. "If nothing's done (the delays) probably would come sooner rather than later. It would probably be in the coming year or the following year after that."

considering request

Fernandez presented to commissioners requests for a facility upgrade, an extra forensic pathologist and an assistant last month during the court's budget workshops. County Judge Loyd Neal said last week that the court understands the request and will come to a decision before the 2007-2008 budget is finalized in September.

"We don't want this office not to be certified," Neal said. "With that said, there's a price tag attached to that of several hundred thousand dollars. ... One of the issues we will look at is the importance of doing this in a timely basis, and how do we pay for it."

The 2,000-square-foot expansion of the office would include an office for the extra forensic pathologist, additional workspace and a family grieving room, Fernandez said.

The request also includes hiring a permanent autopsy assistant.

"We certainly are going to work with (Dr. Fernandez) in every way we can to make sure we've looked at all alternatives and make sure we are properly equipped and funded for when inspection comes," Neal said. "But there's no guarantees. We have several million dollars' worth of requests before us and this is one of them."

Contact David Kassabian at 886-3778 or

The number of cases reported to the office increased by 54% to 1,528 deaths in 2006 from 990 cases in 1996.


Investigate the deaths of people who die violently, suddenly or unexpectedly.

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