County officials in Northeast Tennessee have been handed yet another budget headache courtesy of the state and federal governments. Elected leaders in Washington, Sullivan, Unicoi, Carter, Johnson, Hawkins, Hancock and Greene counties will see their bills for autopsies increase in the new fiscal year.
As Press staff writer Nathan Baker reported last month, officials with East Tennessee State University’s Quillen College of Medicine has announced it is seeking approval from those counties’ governing boards to hike the price of services to help pay for new staff at the William L. Jenkins Forensic Center, where autopsies and forensic consultation is performed.
New state regulations and the current low cost of the services performed at the forensic center on the campus of the Mountain Home Veterans Affairs Medical Center are cited for necessitating the change, which would charge the counties $2.79 per capita instead of basing the costs on a five-year average of the autopsies ordered by each county.
Accreditation standards set by the National Association of Medical Examiners, through which forensic centers in Tennessee are required by law to maintain, urge centers to have a certified death investigator available to consult with authorities at the scenes of deaths.
In addition, a law passed in 2013 to require uniform reporting and investigation of drug overdose deaths has established a new rule from the Chief Medical Examiner’s Office recommending autopsies for such deaths and requiring investigators to consult with a regional forensic center before ordering an autopsy. As a result, local forensic officials say they do not have the staff to meet the new state and federal mandates.
County officials, however, say it’s not fair to pass the buck to local taxpayers.
“I think this is close to ridiculous,” said Greg Lynch, mayor of Unicoi County, who told Baker he is estimating a cost increase from the $19,000 it currently pays for forensic services to $51,000 under the new structure. “To expect a small county like us to pay $32,000 more — it sounds like they’re overstaffing this thing without considering the effect on the smaller counties.”
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