Rock County to look north for medical examiner services

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Catherine W. Idzerda
Monday, August 18, 2014

JANESVILLE—Rock County may soon be looking to its northern neighbor for medical examiner services.

On Monday, the Rock County Board Public Safety and Justice Committee asked staff to prepare a resolution to contract with the Dane County Medical Examiner's Office for some death investigation, forensic pathology and similar services.

The plan, which still has to be approved by both the committee and the full county board, would cost an estimated $597,789 a year and would end four years of uncertainty concerning the future of the Rock County Coroner's Office.

In January 2011, the county board voted to go to a medical examiner system.  The decision came two months after voters approved an advisory referendum supporting the decision.

A coroner is elected and answers only to the voters. A medical examiner is hired and answers to the county board and county administrator.

At Monday's meeting, supervisors were presented with two options for the medical examiner's office:

-- The stand alone option would involve the county running its own medical examiner operation. The county would hire a full-time chief medical examiner, a deputy chief medical examiner and a deputy medical examiner. In addition, seven part-time deputies would be hired for a total of 6.20 positions.

Start-up costs for the office would include $18,100 for body carts, computer equipment and miscellaneous items.

The annual cost, without the one-time start up costs, would be $573,676.

-- The second option would involve contracting with Dane County.

The Dane County medical examiner, deputy examiner and forensic pathologist/physician would provide management and services for Rock County. They would be hired by Dane County. Rock County would hire three medicolegal investigators, part-time medicolegal investigators and a part time clerical worker for a total of four positions.

A medicolegal investigator “assists in the investigation of sudden, unnatural, suspicious, or violent deaths,” according to the Iowa Office of the State Medical Examiner. Investigators also act as liaisons between the  “state and county medical examiner offices, law, and other investigative agencies, families of decedents, and the general public.”

One time start-up costs would be $30,164 and would include additional management and professional oversight, body carts, computer equipment and other items.

The annual cost, without the one-time startup costs would be $597,789

Jerry Lynch, of Whitcomb-Lynch Funeral Home and Cremation Services in Janesville, urged the committee to strongly consider the Dane County option, even though it would cost more.  

The Rock County Coroner's Office is “often in disarray because it is an elected position,” Lynch said.

His funeral home deals with both the Dane County Medical Examiner's Office and the Rock County Coroner's Office and “the difference is night and day,” he said.

Lou Smit, chief deputy/acting coroner, told the committee that when he started about five years ago, the county board wanted to change to the medical examiner system because it wanted more control over the office.

Going with the Dane County Medical Examiner's Office would seem to be going in the opposite direction, Smit noted.

Either choice would cost more than the current office. The 2014 budget for the Rock County Coroner's Office is $458,061.

Randy Terronez, assistant to the county administrator, said the Dane County options would cost more because they would include more full-time staff and fewer per diem workers.

“One thing they (Dane County officials) said was that case consistency needs to be given a higher priority,” Terronez said. “When a person responds to a case, they should follow it through to closure.”

That works better for families and funeral home directors, he said.

The Rock County Coroner's Office has a number of per diem employees, making it difficult to have the same kind of follow through.

In addition, the number of autopsies will increase.  Industry standard is about 20 percent, Terronez said. Rock County conducts autopsies on about 11 percent of its caseload. Dane County conducts autopsies on about 21 percent.

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