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Long delays from the state medical examiner's office in issuing death certificates are putting an additional strain on many grieving families and making it more difficult to settle estates and process insurance claims.
The Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety, which oversees the office, says the number of unfinished death certificates soared from 58 in 2011 to 947 in 2013, according to a report in The Boston Globe. The national medical examiners' association recommends autopsy reports be completed within 90 days. In Massachusetts, it often takes twice as long.
John Morrison, of Haverhill, was still recovering from his wife's unexpected death in March when he learned he would have to wait up to six months for the state to issue an official death certificate. Under state law, the medical examiner must conduct autopsies and determine the cause of unattended deaths, homicides, suicides, deaths in custody and deaths of infants.
When he filed a claim on the couple's $50,000 life insurance policy, his insurer said it would not pay the claim based on the death certificate that listed the cause as "pending." Morrison had to cash in stock, set aside for retirement, to pay the funeral costs.
"We understand that causes a severe hardship with estates and insurances," said Curtis Wood, the Massachusetts undersecretary for forensic science for public safety. "It's a process challenge and a volume challenge. They're unacceptable to us, but they are what they are."
The backlog appears to have multiple causes, including a shortage of pathologists. The medical examiner's office has 10 doctors to handle nearly 2,500 autopsies annually. A 2007 study recommended at least 17 doctors.
Also, in a move to save $600,000 annually, the medical examiner changed the laboratory that conducts toxicology testing, delaying results for months.
Help may be coming. Gov. Deval Patrick proposed adding $2 million to the medical examiner's $10 million budget for next year, and the House and Senate have included similar amounts in their budget plans. That would help by adding more doctors and support staff who can handle the paperwork backlog.