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Proposal to track drugs in Indiana overdose deaths

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. -- When someone dies of an overdose in Indiana, their death certificate can leave a lot of questions. Often, state health investigators often have no idea which drug killed them.

State senator Jim Merritt believes the lack of data from some local coroners is making it hard to fight the heroin epidemic.

SB 74 would force all 92 coroners in the state spell out exactly which drug killed someone and stamp that on the death certificate.

“If we are going to kill heroin in five years, we have to have solid data,” said Merritt.

Annette Rohlman, Morgan County’s coroner, says some of her peers avoid writing “heroin”, “fentanyl” or any number of drugs out of respect to the family.

She questions that approach.

“What’s worse?” questioned Rohlman. “The fact that their death certificate says it or the fact that they died? You know, obviously, it’s the fact that they’re dead.”

Rohlman does list which drugs were involved in an overdose death. But the Marion County coroner and many others across the state do not.

Instead, they write something vague, like “polydrug intoxication” or “poly substance intoxication”, which describes how a person died, but not what was in their system.

“How can we say that we have a heroin problem or an opioid problem and continue to get funding for Narcan?” asked Rohlman. “When the death certificate doesn’t say 20 people died in Morgan County or 250 people died in Marion County.”

Without a law, only changing the state health department’s death certificate form could fix that.

“So unless the state department of health does that or there’s a law, there’s no way that the coroners around the state will all conform to do the same thing.”

Rohlman thinks the goal of the bill is a good idea, but she and other coroners have concerns about how it could impact the workload, especially in smaller counties.

The bill would also require more comprehensive drug panels that could cost at least a million dollars a year.

“I don’t think that we need to have a comprehensive drug panel,” said Rohlman. “I think that the drug panels that we currently run, give us the levels that we need to be able to adequately fill out the death certificate.”

Some coroners aren’t sure it’s worth the cost, but Merritt is.

“There’s no way in the world that we’re going to get through this scourge and not spend money,” said Merritt. “We may have to spend money to save money later."

Rohlman says the senator is working closely with coroners to try to address their concerns with the bill.