INDIANAPOLIS — The Marion County Coroner’s Office shared that its team saw record numbers of decedents needing exams this past weekend, and the challenges being faced while trying to work through the cases with limited staffing.
“Over the last four to five years, we’ve been seeing an increase in death investigations, and we have documented this trend, we’ve shared this trend information,” said Alfarena McGinty, Chief Deputy Coroner with the Marion County Coroner’s Office.
McGinty said part of their responsibility is to identify those trends and share them so agencies can work to put prevention measures in place.
Even as the coroner’s office identified a trend in death investigations their office handles rising since 2016, McGinty said they are still battling staffing challenges and inadequate pay.
“Where we find ourselves now is we do not have the appropriate staff to conduct adequate death investigations, to respond to the community that we are responsible for responding to, to share information, we just don’t have the staff to do that,” shared McGinty.
“Every year we say, ‘hey, this is what’s happening this is what we predict to happen even next year going forward,’ and sort of, it falls on deaf ears,” she continued.
In 2016, the Marion County Coroner’s Office worked on 1,809 cases. That number has drastically increased since. In 2020, they worked on a total of 2,611 cases.
Going hand in hand with staffing shortages, McGinty said low compensation is leading to high turnover rates.
In Marion County, she said a deputy coroner position pays $35,360, or $17 an hour, requiring a Scientific Bachelor Degree, whereas other positions with less qualifications or specialized training, are offering higher pay.
In comparison, McGinty said a maintenance position with the city is listed, starting at $44,304, or approximately $21.30 per hour, with the only requirement being a high school diploma.
“They’re out here doing the work that no one else wants to do, that no one else can do,” said McGinty of the coroner’s office staff.
Because the office operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and 365 days a year, McGinty said staffers are often working shifts of up to 18 hours in one day, to help meet the demand their office is facing.
McGinty said, “current overtime payout has been $38,000 from January to May. This is a critical sign that our staffing levels are not where they should be for the death investigation case load.”
McGinty argues she is seeing other agencies’ staff receiving pay that is fair and equitable, but that her department is not experiencing the same.
McGinty said there are standards that staff must be compliant with in regard to case totals per employee, per year and forensic exams. Although she said MCCO has taken active steps follow those standards, “we are unable to do this due to staffing shortages,” she said.
The MCCO also needs two additional full time forensic pathologists, said McGinty.
McGinty said such a high caseload on each staff member could possibly lead to, not only public scrutiny, but also staff burnout, increase in possible litigation, increase in the likelihood of mistakes, poor case management, and longer times families would need to wait for information on their deceased loved one.
According to MCCO, the national standards set 250 cases as the maximum per staff member. The MCCO takes steps to prevent crossing that threshold, by limiting their maximum per staffer to 200 to be responsible about staying in compliance.
However, in 2020, four deputies were out of compliance, all full-time deputies, with more than 250 cases each. Additionally, three autopsy technicians were out of compliance, all full-time employees, with more than 300 cases each.
There were also three deputies at risk of non-compliance, two doctors at risk and one doctor who was non-compliant due to case load.
The coroner’s office is conducting more than 1700 autopsies per year, said McGinty.
According to McGinty, per national standards, staffing levels are based on autopsy numbers. She said they should have 40 employees, including at minimum, eleven full time deputy coroners and eight full time autopsy technicians.
On Tuesday, she said their office has five full time deputy coroners and four full time autopsy technicians currently.
The MCCO says an increased budget will help significantly. For 2022, the MCCO said it is going to request an increase in full time employees to match the national standard of staffing meant to process the number of autopsies performed by the office. If approved, it would add 6 full time autopsy technicians, 6 full time deputy coroners, 1 quality assurance deputy, 3 administrative assistants and 1 transcriptionist.
McGinty said they have seen improvement since the city’s new controller took over, but that there is still work to be done so they can continue to serve the residents of Marion County safely, and ensure the job is getting done correctly and as thoroughly as possible.