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County Council seeks probe of medical examiner's office

Investigation sought over ties to funeral homes, treatment of bodies

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By Noah Haglund, Herald Writer
EVERETT — Questions about staff turnover, working relationships with funeral homes and the treatment of bodies at the Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office merit a review by an independent, third party, County Council Chairman Dave Gossett said.
“I think they all deserve a closer look,” Gossett said Wednesday.
This week, Gossett sent County Executive Aaron Reardon a memo asking for the outside probe. It calls for confidential interviews of all current and former medical examiner’s office employees, whenever possible.
One of Reardon’s executive directors, Peter Camp, said he is working on a plan for the detailed review, including cost estimates.
Councilman Dave Somers said questions being raised about the medical examiner’s office deserve clarification through an independent review.
“We need to separate out if the allegations have serious merit or if it’s just a grudge and these small incidents have been blown out of proportion, and I don’t have a good sense of that yet,” Somers said.
The scrutiny comes after an anonymous, online complaint the county received in August 2009.
The writer claimed to help run one of the county’s largest funeral homes and said bodies the funeral home received from the medical examiner’s office were “in vile condition.”
Camp initially sought help from a consulting firm that already was working on hiring in the medical examiner’s office. The firm conducted a confidential survey to learn if any local funeral parlors shared the concerns in the complaint. Camp said just one of seven offered negative comments, and that didn’t justify any action against medical examiner Dr. Norman Thiersch or his staff.
The county also received one written complaint in 2003 about one body that had been autopsied. This April, another funeral director wrote that some autopsied bodies from the county had arteries he said were cut unnecessarily, making embalming difficult.
The county council wants other issues examined, too.
A former associate medical examiner who was fired last year has complained about personnel problems. Gossett’s letter calls the level of turnover troubling, but Camp said he was unaware of a widespread problem.
The county already made changes at the medical examiner’s office this spring.
Staff began meeting with each funeral home in the county individually, both to prepare for mass-casualty disasters and to gather feedback on how the office is performing.
“That will be a regular, ongoing effort to talk to the funeral homes to hear what they have to say, good or bad,” Camp said.
The county also changed its procedure for providing families the names of local funeral homes. When asked, staff used to hand people a list of three homes, but didn’t offer a recommendation, Camp said. The county has 17 licensed funeral homes, state records show. Families now are steered to a directory listing all funeral homes in the state, Camp said.
“We don’t even want the appearance of referring or recommending,” he said.
To make embalming easier after autopsy, medical examiner staff have started tying off blood vessels with a string, Camp said. Finally, the office is working on getting accredited through the National Association of Medical Examiners. King, Pierce and Spokane counties all have full accreditation, according to the association’s website.
Thiersch, a pathologist who has worked as the county’s medical examiner since 1998, oversees a dozen staff members and an annual budget of nearly $1.9 million. From 2003 through 2009, the office performed 2,670 autopsies, Camp said.
A specialist in infant-death investigation who has known Thiersch about a decade praised him and his staff.
“We’ve never had a complaint and only heard great things about their office,” said Deborah Robinson, who sits on panels that review children’s deaths in Snohomish and King counties.
Robinson said she’s in a position to know because she has talked to hundreds of grieving families over the years, including many from Snohomish County.
“He’s always just been very thoughtful of the families and their privacy,” she said.
While the condition of bodies after autopsy is potentially a legitimate issue for funeral homes to be concerned about, none have complained to the Washington State Funeral Directors Association, association President Cameron Smock said.
“No member has raised this as an issue to our association anywhere in this state,” he said. “If it’s been an issue to some, I would characterize it as an isolated incident, at least from my experience.”
Smock, the president and CEO of Seattle-based Bonney-Watson funeral homes, said his business had not encountered any problems with Snohomish County.
Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465,
Story tags » County CouncilMedical Examiner

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