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Audit doesn’t tell full story of problems in medical examiner’s office, legislator says

Del. Kirill Reznik, D-Montgomery, sponsored legislation earlier this year that requires the state Department of Health to maintain adequate staff within the medical examiner’s office. The bill, passed by the General Assembly, was introduced after a growing backlog of autopsies became public. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

A performance audit of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner likely does not provide a full picture of problems within the agency, according to one state lawmaker.

The audit made public Tuesday by the Office of Legislative Audits “did not disclose any findings that warrant mention.” Del. Kirill Reznik, D-Montgomery County, said it may fall short of painting a complete picture of the agency responsible for autopsies in the state.

“It looks like the audit is quite limited in scope and not designed to address the deficiencies in OCME that led to the problems the office experienced,” Reznik said. “So it looks like the OLA audit is complete but doesn’t paint a complete picture of the full scope of problems this office has, and likely continues to experience.”

Reznik sponsored legislation earlier this year that requires the state Department of Health to maintain adequate staff within the medical examiner’s office. The bill, passed by the General Assembly, was introduced after a growing backlog of autopsies became public.

The nine-page audit released by the Office of Legislative Audits limited itself to the fiscal performance of the agency between September 2017 and September 2021.

In it, auditors note that the agency investigated 18,600 deaths and performed 6,744 autopsies. The agency’s budget totaled approximately $15.7 million.

During the review period, the agency noted that 99% of all autopsies performed were completed within 24 hours. Auditors also noted that concerns raised in an earlier audit were satisfactorily addressed.

But the review stops roughly three months before bodies at the agency begin to stack up.

Dr. Victor Weedn, the state’s medical examiner at the time, attributed the backlog to a longstanding problem with filling vacancies at the office.

By February, the agency reported there were 217 autopsies waiting to be performed. Some were potential homicide cases. The delays resulted in some families having to wait to bury their loved ones.

The agency ran out of space to store the dead and was forced to use a refrigerated trailer as well as a temporary facility set up inside a west Baltimore garage.

A review by legislative analysts reported that the agency, which is seeing an increase in the number of autopsies it performs, had nearly five full-time vacancies.

The backlog potentially puts at risk the agency’s accreditation by the National Association of Medical Examiners.

The association temporarily waived staffing requirements because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The group is expected to lift that waiver at some point.

In an effort to address the backlog, the state called in a team from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. That backlog was cleared earlier this year but not before Weedn resigned his post.

Reznik’s bill awaits action by Gov. Larry Hogan. A final bill signing ceremony is tentatively scheduled for May 26. Any possible vetoes would likely be announced late that same week.