The budget for the State Medical Examiner’s Office in Macon is expected to more than double in 2011 over 2009 expenditures due in large part to the closing of other crime labs in the state, according to a recent state audit.
Dr. Kris Sperry, the GBI’s chief medical examiner, said the jump from $378,212 spent in 2009 to 2011’s budgeted $768,036 is because of the Macon lab absorbing staff members and other expenses once allocated to the state’s Moultrie crime lab.
The Macon lab, located on Riggins Mill Road in Dry Branch, previously had one medical examiner but now has two. An autopsy assistant, investigator and clerical worker also have been transferred to the Macon lab, Sperry said.
With the additional staff, Macon’s medical examiners are performing autopsies from counties stretching to the Georgia-Florida state line, he said.
The Macon office performed 382 autopsies in fiscal 2010, according to the audit.
The audit also revealed medical examiners statewide release autopsy reports slower than the national average of within 90 days.
In a sample of 300 exams conducted in fiscal 2009, 78 percent met the standard, according to the audit.
Sperry said state medical examiners were meeting the 90-day standard 85 percent of the time between July and September, the most recent statistics available.
A growth in the number of drug-related deaths and a shortage of experienced scientists to perform toxicology tests contribute to the delay, Sperry said.
Without the results of the tests and a cause of death, medical examiners can’t tell coroners to sign a death certificate, he said.
“If we suspect it’s drugs, all we can do is wait until we get the results back,” Sperry said. “It’s a constant source of frustration.”
In 2007 and 2008, one of every five autopsies performed by the GBI statewide was for a drug death. By 2009, the rate increased to one in four, he said.
“The number of deaths from drugs is skyrocketing,” Sperry said.
Meanwhile, budget cuts have led to a decrease in the number of drug technicians and experienced personnel. It takes a minimum of two years of GBI training for a new scientist, he said.
Also increasing is the number of drugs that technicians are looking for in samples, Sperry said.
Delays in obtaining medical records also contribute to the slower release of autopsy reports, he said.
Sperry said there have been times when it’s been necessary to send GBI agents to hospitals and doctors’ offices with subpoenas to obtain the records.
George Herrin, the GBI’s crime lab director, said the GBI is in the process of reopening the Moultrie crime lab and is hiring scientists. Until the lab becomes fully operational, evidence is being accepted at the facility and shipped to other crime labs.
The Macon lab is taking a good number of the Moultrie cases, Herrin said.
Sperry said employees associated with the medical examiner’s office will not move back to Moultrie from Macon once the Moultrie lab reopens.
Support from the state Legislature and other interested parties has provided funding to reopen the Moultrie lab and keep the Columbus lab open, Herrin said.
Labs in Columbus, Moultrie and Summerville were scheduled for closure this year. Herrin said the Summerville lab remains closed.
Because of training requirements and repairs being performed at the Moultrie facility, the Moultrie lab isn’t expected to be fully operational until the end of 2011, he said.
To contact writer Amy Leigh Womack, call 744-4398.