Death Investigations in Oregon Are Changing

Death cases in Oregon are about to get a lot different, and counties are working hard to get ready.

The Oregon State Medical Examiner’s Office says it can’t keep up with the record number of strange deaths, murders, and calls for autopsies. It doesn’t have enough staff or space. So, starting this summer, a lot of the often hard and time-consuming work will be given to local counties, some of which haven’t had a medical examiner for years.

Hiring a doctor to be our county medical examiner is something new for us,” said Dr. Teresa Everson, Multnomah County’s Interim Deputy Health Officer.

Everson says that the county found out about the changes in February. This set off a flurry of planning so that the county can soon start figuring out what caused people to die, signing death certificates, and doing physical exams on hundreds of bodies each year.

In the past few years, the county has seen a rise in deaths that have to be looked into more thoroughly.

Since 2019, county records show that the number of deaths assigned to death investigators has gone up by almost 40%, and the number of cases where investigators have to go to death scenes has gone up by 75%.

Everson says that COVID-19 is partly to blame for the rise.

Another major factor is drug use.

Everson said, “We’re seeing an increase in overdose deaths from one year to the next. Most of them involve fentanyl, and many of them involve more than one drug.”

The county health department says that the extra work will require at least three new employees, including a part-time doctor who will be the county medical examiner. The county says it will need at least $430,000 more to pay for the program, and it may need even more to hire more support staff.

Paying fees to keep storing bodies at the state morgue could be another cost.

Most of that money will come from where is still unclear.

“It’s a little hard to get the time right. We did have time to at least make a request for the physician part of this, so we already have funding for a part-time physician to do this medical examiner death certification piece, but we are still looking into internal choices for funding,” Everson said.

The state medical examiner will still have to do autopsies and deal with hard situations, like murders or the deaths of children and infants.

Details are still being worked out to set clear rules for each case.

Everson said, “That’s part of what we’ve been working on over the past few months: figuring out what will come to us and what will still go to the state.”

The office of the state medical examiner says that the changes will let its forensic doctors focus on the most important deaths, which are often connected to crimes.

The goal is to improve how data is collected about all deaths and to give police, lawyers, and people who have lost loved ones more up-to-date information.

“Families, lawyers, and people who need information quickly may need it from us, and we want to make sure that service doesn’t get interrupted.”

Multnomah County is in the same boat as about a dozen other counties, all of which are racing to get plans and people in place before the changes in July.

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The Washington County Health Department was also asked about the changes by FOX 12. A spokesman for the county says that they are still trying to figure out how it will affect their work and what the county may need.

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