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Mississippi State Medical Examiner HB 922

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HB 922, which our office helped draft, and which would have added a board as the entity that hired the Mississippi State Medical Examiner, died in committee.  However, a still-alive Senate bill, through the legislative process, now contains all of the substantive language from HB 922.  That said, there is still much discussion about the merit of this bill generally, and more specifically, the best way forward for the future of the ME’s office.  One suggestion is to move the office away from the Department of Public Safety and to the Department of Health. The Clarion Ledger article below discusses the most recent developments.

“Bill changes oversight of state medical examiner’s office”

by Molly Parker of The Clarion-Ledger

01 March 2011

A second state medical examiner is scheduled to begin work this week as lawmakers consider legislation to redirect oversight of that office from public safety to a nine-member board of stakeholders or the Board of Health.

“I would say the key word is stability,” said House Public Health and Human Services Committee Chairman Stave Holland, D-Plantersville, of the need for change. “We have had so much instability for so many years in the state medical examiner’s office. I think it’s because it’s just not positioned right in the law.”

Coroners and the families they serve have complained in recent months of longer-than-usual waits for bodies to be returned. Instability in the medical examiner’s office, which is under the Department of Public Safety, has been cited as the chief concern.

Dr. Mark LeVaughn is coming to Jackson from the medical examiner’s office in Buffalo, N.Y. He begins work this week, joining Dr. Adel Shaker, who in November was hired as the state’s first staff medical examiner since the mid ’90s.

Shaker, who earns $190,000 annually, came to Mississippi from the Alabama Medical Examiner’s Office.

Late last year, the state recruited Dr. Douglas Posey, a certified forensic pathologist with the George Bureau of Investigation, to be the state’s chief medical examiner, but Posey backed out of the job after his expected start date because of health issues.

DPS spokesman Jon Kalahar said LeVaughn’s title will be announced after he officially starts.

Hinds County Coroner Sharon Grisham-Stewart said she’s not sure creation of a board is the magic bullet but said legislators should attempt reform.

“It’s been one thing after another since 2008 when Dr. Hayne was removed from that position,” she said. “Every time it seems like we’re moving forward we have a setback and it seems like we’re at a standstill.”

Dr. Steven Hayne was under contract for years to conduct many of the state’s autopsies, but did not have national board certification in forensic pathology and his work was scrutinized after his testimony helped to wrongfully convict two Mississippi men of capital murder. The state ended its contract with him in 2008.

Until recently, Mississippi had contracted with Tennessee-based Global Forensics to handle autopsies. In October, Global opted out of its contract after renegotiations broke down.

 

Leading lawmakers have been pushing to staff the medical examiner’s with state employees and they recently increased the salary limits to aid recruitment.

 

Before he stepped down as public safety commissioner last month, Steve Simpson had said his intent was to staff the office with a chief and four assistants, all certified forensic pathologists.

 

“Anything could happen at any minute when you’re all ‘will and pleasure,'” Holland said of the fact the commissioner, who hires the medical examiner, reports to the governor. “These are highly trained, highly skilled individuals.”

 

Commissioner Albert Santa Cruz is the fifth man to serve in that post since Gov. Haley Barbour took office in 2004. Simpson stepped down last month to run for attorney general.

 

The version of Senate Bill 2435 that passed the House by a 121-0 vote last week would create a board made up of the following members or their designees: dean, University of Mississippi Medical Center School of Medicine; Department of Public Safety commissioner; state health officer; attorney general; and presidents of the Mississippi Coroners’ Association, the Mississippi Prosecutors Association, the Mississippi Public Defenders Association, the Mississippi Association of Chiefs of Police and the Mississippi Sheriff’s Association.

The medical examiner would be appointed by and report to the board, which would also be responsible for approving the budget for the office.

Rankin County Coroner Jimmy Roberts said he’s concerned a nine-member board creates an unnecessary layer of politics.

“That many people – the state health officer and all of these other people – how can you please them?” he said.

As the measure passed the Senate, oversight of the medical examiner’s office, including hiring and firing of the chief medical examiner, would be transferred to the Board of Health.

Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee Chairman Hob Bryan said creating a new board doesn’t make sense when the Board of Health is as “close to apolitical as you will find around here.”

On the need for shifting responsibility for the medical examiner’s office, Bryan said: “It’s been dysfunctional for decades.”

The bill is likely headed to a conference committee of House and Senate members.

Lowndes County Coroner Greg Merchant, president of the Mississippi Coroners’ Association, said coroners want the position to remain under the Department of Public Safety.

“We’re an investigative arm of the medical field and we need to be with the investigators and not necessarily the medical people,” Merchant said.

Merchant, however, agreed change is needed, and said the creation of a board, while not a cure-all, might help.

“I think it’s time we try a new approach and some new angle,” he said. “We haven’t been very successful over the last few years.”

 

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