BEND, OR -- With major changes at the state Medical Examiner’s office, Deschutes County’s M.E. is pushing for more money and full-time staff. "The state Medical Examiner’s office is completely inundated with cases and volume, and they are incredibly short-staffed," Dr. Annie Onishi told Deschutes County Commissioners Monday, "They need about 10 more pathologists to be a fully functional state office. They’re out of morgue space, they’re out of morgue techs. It’s sort of dire straits over there."
Dr. Onishi contracts with Deschutes and Crook counties. But, she says, more than a dozen other counties that previously relied on the state M.E. for coroner services have to take on those services themselves. "As of July one of this year, the State Medical Examiner’s Office is no longer covering 14 of the 36 counties of Oregon," Onishi said, "They were serving as the county medical examiner for quite a few counties and they are no longer doing that." And there are other service cuts, "There was a - I’ll say - a pretty shocking email from the state M.E.’s office and Oregon State Police of the things that they are not going to be investigating anymore. So, it used to be that anybody who died of a suspected overdose would get an autopsy. They’re not doing that anymore. So, from Deschutes or Crook County, if there’s a suspected overdose, all we do is send tox - so either a blood or a urine sample. And that goes to the lab; and that’s a six month delay." She added, "They, on a state level, are going to be investigating homicides and child and infant deaths, and that’s about it. Everything else is going to fall on the counties."
She says it’s time for the county to consider bringing the office in-house, including a licensed pathologist. Onishi is not a pathologist and does not perform autopsies - right now, those are done by the state Medical Examiner.
In response to KBND's request for information on changes at the State Medical Examiner's Office (SMEO), an Oregon State Police spokesperson said in an email, "For many years, the SMEO has assisted about one-third of Oregon’s counties with some of their county tasks. Unfortunately, staffing challenges and several years of dramatic and compounding increases in SMEO workload have made it impossible for the State to continue doing so much of the county portion of the M.E. work." Capt. Kyle Kennedy went on to say, "The SMEO is invested in the success of every county partner and our overall system, so we are continuing to help where needed, as needed. Such determinations vary depending on our capacity at the moment and the needs of the county, but we’re committed to helping when we can."