AUGUSTA, Maine — The state’s chief medical examiner wants to hire death investigators — certified specialists who probe unnatural and unexplained deaths — to supplement a shrinking pool of doctors who have historically done the job.
Dr. Margaret Greenwald testified on April 2 before the Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Judiciary in support of LD 884, a bill that describes the role and qualifications of a death investigator. She also requested funding for the positions.
“My request into the Legislature right now is for two full-time death investigators to take over for doctors,” she said Thursday. “We’re looking for nurse practitioners, physician’s assistants, or EMTs — people with some medical background” who are interested in investigative work.
Death investigators respond to death scenes as representatives of the medical examiner and collect and document evidence needed to determine a person’s cause and manner of death, she said. They are sent to scenes of homicides, suicides, car crashes and other accidents, drug overdoses or drug-related deaths, as well as other deaths that are sudden or unexpected.
They interact with law enforcement, talk with families and testify in court, Greenwald said.
The budget for the medical examiner’s office for fiscal year 2012-13 was $1.3 million and the cost to “hire, equip and train two additional full-time [death] investigators would be $159,184 in fiscal year ’14,” she said Friday by email.
The office currently has nine employees, one of whom is working toward certification as a medicolegal death investigator.
“It takes about a year and a half to get a death investigator fully trained,” Greenwald said Friday. “It’s 640 hours [of investigations].”
The American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators was first accredited by the Forensic Specialties Accreditation Board in 2005, and since then the number of death investigators nationally has grown.
“Many medical examiners across the country use non-doctors,” Greenwald said.
There is a dwindling number of physician medical examiners who are able to respond to death scenes and funeral homes in Maine to examine bodies and certify the cause of death, Greenwald said, adding, “The doctors are so busy.”
The Medical Examiner’s website states there is a pool of around 200 physicians serving as volunteer medical examiners in their communities, but Greenwald said the number who are willing to leave their private practices to go to a crime scene is far less.
“I would estimate there are about 40 MEs willing to do cases now,” she said Saturday in an email.
To supplement the pool of physician medical examiners, Greenwald came up with the idea of using non-physician clinicians, who are specially trained in crime scene investigations. That started in 2001, when legislation was passed allowing the medical examiner to designate “a person expressly authorized” to assist with the state’s 1,200 or so annual multi-faceted death investigations.
LD 884 replaces the “authorized person” with “medicolegal death investigators,” who have to be certified by the medical examiner’s office, and “gives them the needed authority to investigate and work with law enforcement,” Greenwald told legislators.
The proposed legislation also gives the death investigators the same liability protection as is provided to medical examiners and other consultants for the medical examiner’s office, she said.
Greenwald provided a copy of her testimony to the Bangor Daily News, and it is also posted on the 126th Legislature’s pending statute website, along with testimony from state Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, who proposed the bill, and state Rep. Anne Graham, D-North Yarmouth, who is a registered nurse.
“LD 884 will help to ensure that investigations are conducted in a timely manner and that evidence of crime can be quickly collected,” Gerzofsky said.
Six years ago, the medical examiner was able to hire a death investigator when the attorney general’s office allowed the transfer of a position and special funding for a period of two years, and in 2009 the state agreed to add and fund the position. David King had held the post for the last few years and was replaced by Maria MacDonald in December, who is working toward her medicolegal death investigations certification, Greenwald said.
“It’s a priority for us but will take time,” she said of MacDonald’s certification.
There also is a need for part-time death investigators located around the state, the medical examiner said.
“We need to begin to train part-time fee-for-service death investigators. Without them, the current medical examiner’s system will fail completely within the next five years,” Greenwald testified. “LD 884 is intended to encourage qualified physicians assistants, nurse practitioners or EMTs to become medicolegal death investigators by ensuring that the position is clearly defined by statute.”
A work session on the bill is scheduled for 1 p.m., Tuesday, April 9, in room 438 of the State House.