Budget cuts cost CT medical examiner’s office full accreditation

The Connecticut Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME) has lost its full accreditation and was downgraded to provisional status because of staffing and facility shortcomings driven largely by budget cuts.

Office of the Chief Medical Examiner

Dr. James Gill, chief medical examiner (file photo)

The National Association of Medical Examiners (NAME), which ordered the downgrade, will reassess Connecticut’s status in September, the state office announced this week.

“The OCME has four phase 2 (major) deficiencies,” the state agency wrote in a statement, adding that “any phase 2 deficiency results in loss of full accreditation.”

Three of these deficiencies related to inadequate staffing involving medical examiners, investigators and other staff. The other involves an “inadequate refrigerated body storage space,” the statement reads.

If these major deficiencies are not corrected by the September review, the state office will lose its national accreditation entirely, the statement continued.

The national organization also identified six “phase 1 deficiencies,” which are deemed minor problems, according to the state OCME. A state office is entitled to 15 such deficiencies under the national rating system.

The state office did not disclose details on these “phase 1” deficiencies.

Dr. James Gill, the chief medical examiner, first warned the General Assembly and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration more than a year ago that budget cuts were threatening the office’s national accreditation.

mark pazniokas / ctmirror.org

Senate GOP Leader Len Fasano and, at right, new members of his caucus. (file photo)

“The chief medical examiner’s office losing its accreditation shows the insanity of the state’s priorities,” Senate Republican President Pro Tem Len Fasano of North Haven said this week. “We knew this was coming. We were warned in the spring that the Democrats’ budget cuts would result in this outcome. We were warned again in the fall. But still the governor refused to take action.”

Fasano added that “without accreditation, every piece of evidence in every case processed by that office will be called into question. This is a core public health and public safety necessity. Ultimately losing accreditation will be a significant cost to the state and municipalities and an extreme hardship for our criminal justice system. If the state has a budget surplus, which the governor claims we do, why would he not use that now to preserve the state’s accreditation?”

Malloy’s budget office estimates this fiscal year’s General Fund is $23.3 million in the black while the legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis estimates the budget is on pace to close the fiscal year on June 30 with an $11.9 million deficit. Both projections represent very small differentials, less than one-seventh of 1 percent of the General Fund.

Chris McClure, spokesman for the governor’s budget office, said, “While we have not reviewed [the] NAME report, we appreciate the insights of outside accreditation entities, and certainly appreciate the important and difficult work of the medical examiner’s office. We will review the report and continue working with Dr. Gill and his staff as the budget process plays out in the weeks and months ahead.”

Budget cuts forced a confrontation last summer between the Farmington-based office and Connecticut cities and towns.

After Malloy and the legislature ordered an 11 percent cut to the chief medical examiner’s budget last May, McGill notified municipalities that his office no longer could afford several services it had provided — including handling and disposition of unclaimed human remains — despite not being obligated to do so by state law.

Towns disagreed with Gill’s interpretation of the law, and the two sides negotiated a compromise: the medical examiner’s office would handle storage and disposition of the bodies, but communities would take on responsibility for transporting them.

Both sides recognized, though, that the long-term solution was likely to be to increase funding for the OCME.

The state office is working with Malloy’s budget staff and with the state Department of Administrative Services to correct these deficiencies, Gill’s office added.

“Some of the vacant technical and non-technical staff positions already have been refilled,” the statement continued. “Work on new refrigerated storage space is being put out to bid in March.  The only anticipated remaining hurdle that will prevent the OCME from regaining full accreditation is the need for two additional medical examiners.”

The state office is scheduled to testify before the legislature’s Appropriations Committee at a Feb. 23 hearing in the Legislative Office Building.

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