Police to incur costs as state ceases toxicology testing for most sudden deaths

As the state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner gears up to stop its longstanding practice of performing toxicology tests for most sudden deaths — a decision the chief medical examiner announced Monday — local police are worried about how the change will affect their bottom lines.

Dr. James Gill told reporters Monday that an impending 5.75 percent cut to the office's approximately $6.2 million budget, which included two layoffs and is the latest in a series of budget cuts at the state level, means that, beginning June 1, the office will stop its toxicology work in relation to homicides, motor vehicle deaths and most suicides.

The office still will make the corresponding blood samples available to police, Gill said, but it will be up to police to seek out private toxicology testing — something that can cost almost $200 per test.

"This is going to be a problem for us," said Groton Town police Chief Louis J. Fusaro Jr. "In a time of diminished resources and financial constraints, it's another cost we'll have to incur that we weren't expecting, haven't budgeted for and, quite frankly, don't yet know the scope of."

In an average year, Fusaro said, his department investigates 20 to 25 "sudden deaths." They've investigated 13 so far this year.

"Death investigations are the most important investigations that we do," Fusaro said. "Having as much information about all of the factors involved — a person's physical health, mental health, whether they were intoxicated — is important. We're still going to pursue that, whether through the medical examiner or somewhere else ... but we're just passing the effects (of budget cuts) from one entity to another."

Speaking via email Tuesday, Gill said his agency understands that toxicology results can be "very important" for police and attorneys, but that toxicology results don't affect the office's certification.

"If a person dies from trauma ... the cause of death is the injury and they would have died from that regardless of what drugs were in their system," he said. "Given these cuts, we must focus on our core mission, which is the investigation and certification of these deaths."

According to Gill, the medical examiner's office will continue to perform toxicology testing in suspected overdose cases.

In Connecticut, accidental intoxication deaths more than doubled in the past four years, rising from 357 in 2012 to 723 last year.

But it's unclear what will happen in cases where it's possible an overdose led to a car crash — even as, according to AAA, drugged driving is on the rise.

A Tuesday news release from AAA called Gill's announcement "disturbing."

"Connecticut has made great strides in this area in just the past year," the agency's statement said. "Our drugged driving data collection is being used as a model for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in Washington. Elimination of motor vehicle toxicology tests by the (medical examiner's) office would represent a significant step backwards."

Gill said the 5.75 percent cut is affecting the office in other ways, too.

One of the two people laid off from the office, for example, was the IT expert who was charged with making data on the state's overdoses readily available — a task that will now fall to the state Vital Records Office.

There's also a possibility the state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner will lose its accreditation through the National Association of Medical Examiners this summer, Gill said.

When an official with the association visited Connecticut last year for the office's annual review, she noted that the office's seven autopsy pathologists were on track to perform 325 autopsies each that year — a number that, if exceeded, would cause the office to lose its full accreditation.

In the past almost two years, the office's autopsy numbers have increased 58 percent — from 1,488 to 2,357 — stretching employees thin and leading to a projected budget shortfall of $456,000 for this fiscal year.

The official recommended adding an eighth medical examiner to the staff, noting that Gill already has taken on a full case load in addition to his administrative duties.

"Loss of accreditation means that an office cannot meet the minimal standards of practice for death investigation," Gill explained in a March meeting with the state legislative Appropriations Committee. "Mistakes by a medical examiner put people's lives at risk, can result in the innocent (being) imprisoned and cost millions of dollars in civil claims."

In the fall last year, he told the committee, the office proposed reorganizational and hiring plans that "would have saved the office money," but couldn't be fully implemented because of the hiring freeze in place at the time.

As a result, over the past fiscal year, the office depended largely on paying existing employees overtime as their workload increased.

"Overtime and a dedicated, hard-working staff have allowed us to continue functioning as a 24/7/365 agency and be sensitive to the families we serve," he said.

The deficit from overtime pay, Gill said, is one that will recur until budget and staffing issues are "fully addressed."

l.boyle@theday.com

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