TULSA, Okla. (AP) — Autopsies may no longer be performed at the Tulsa branch of the state Medical Examiner’s Office, but the chief medical examiner said the office will stay open for investigators.
Dr. Jeffery Gofton told the state Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Public Safety Monday that the change could occur by July 1.
The cutback should result in “autopsies being performed quicker,” Gofton said, because all professional forensic pathologists would be based in the same place and the workload would be evened out.
But Tulsa Police Cpl. Gene Watkins said the action would create “a huge problem for Tulsa and northeast Oklahoma.”
Police officers would have to delay their investigations of a homicide crime scene until a pathologist could arrive from Oklahoma City and that it would do little good to have only investigators working out of the Tulsa office, Watkins said.
“This means we would have to drive to Oklahoma City just to get fingerprints of a homicide victim and doctors would have to travel up here for any court proceedings,” Watkins said.
Officials reported in May that the two pathologists in Tulsa were performing about 400 autopsies a year, while the average for the two offices was 320.
The deputy medical examiner, Dr. Ronald Distefano, worked out of the Tulsa office until his retirement this past summer. Gofton said because only one pathologist is now in the Tulsa office, it is not staffed on weekends.
Gofton said Distefano is still on the payroll because of accumulated vacation time, so his salary has continued to be paid. Watkins said the Tulsa office is understaffed now because the Medical Examiner’s Office has not replaced Distefano.
The medical examiner, for whom a nearly $50,000 pay increase has been authorized, is being rewarded for failing to hire a pathologist to replace Distefano, Watkins contended.
Lawmakers agreed to increase the chief’s pay from $185,000 to possibly $235,000, a move that occurred after Gofton had confirmed his intention to leave. The medical examiner said he is trying to hire three more pathologists.
Sen. Debbe Leftwich, D-Oklahoma City, noted that the agency has a problem attracting pathologists and personnel because of the poor conditions at the Oklahoma City office, which she said should be replaced.
In an effort to ease the workload, which now averages just less than 300 autopsies per pathologist per year, Gofton’s office has reduced the number of autopsies being performed on people younger than 40 unless the death was a homicide, he said.
Toxicology tests for alcohol are performed in questionable traffic accidents, but Gofton said tests for such things as prescription drugs are not performed because of staffing problems.
After the legislative session ended, the Medical Examiner’s Office declared a crisis and sought additional funding from legislative leaders, who agreed to provide an additional $1 million.