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Coroner's extra work exhausts dept.'s budget

Friday, August 26, 2011

Even as budget belt-tightening is the problem on the mind of every county official, one Putnam County department has no control over its caseload and, therefore, little control of its expenses.

In an average year the Putnam County Coroner's Office handles a little more than 40 cases. Having already reached that number in late August, there will be a lot of budget juggling and, very likely, some additional appropriations for the coroner's office in the coming months.

At Tuesday's meeting of the Putnam County Council, Beth Glaze, representing Coroner Thomas Miller, requested that $1,000 be transferred from the office's autopsy fees to equipment rental to cover the costs of transporting bodies.

Unfortunately, the transfer is only a temporary band-aid. In the last three weeks, the county has handled the case of the dead body found behind Refuse Handling, an out-of-county murder with the body dumped in a Putnam County and two highway fatalities.

And those are only the high-profile cases.

Miller said there are a number of reasons not only Putnam County, but coroner's offices statewide and nationwide are seeing an increase in their caseload.

"One is financial. People don't want to go to the doctor because they don't want to incur the cost," Miller said. "It's not as if that's been unusual in the past, but I think you're just going to see a higher incidence of it as we proceed in the future."

Another problem has less to do with caseload than it does with the financial constraints current state law places coroners under.

"The laws in Indiana have changed and we have to identify a body by one of four ways -- family identification, DNA, fingerprints or dental," Miller said.

The coroner gave an example of two friends riding together in a car when an accident occurs. If only one friend survives and can definitively identify the other person in the car, it would not legally qualify as an identification.

Instead, the next option is to ask family to identify the deceased.

"We go to great extremes to guard the families from being traumatized because that's what you're doing. You're traumatizing them to ask them to look at your loved ones," Miller said. "If you don't traumatize families, then you're paying tons of money. Counties like us don't have the money."

So if families are not an option to identify a body, the only option left is to spend county money.

"If we can't identify a person by family identification, then we have to do it by dental, DNA or fingerprints. Those all cost money. When we incur those costs into a budget like ours, that's miniscule to begin with, money's eaten up quickly," Miller said.

"The laws with determining the cause and manner of death have forced coroners to perform more autopsies. You may be 90 percent certain that a patient died of a heart attack, but in order to meet state law, you still have to do an autopsy to show that instead of maybe relying on medical records and the history from family and friends."

Miller said a strong argument could be made for a county like Putnam to have a fulltime coroner. He understands that is not feasible in this financial environment.

Instead, there is the elected coroner and four deputies -- all of whom have fulltime jobs outside of their coroner duties.

"We really have a great group of deputy coroners that work for the county," Miller said. "I think very highly of them, their knowledge base and their passion as well as their compassion for the families that we deal with. I couldn't ask for a better team."

Besides Miller, the staff includes chief deputy David Brown, deputy Steve Walters and newly appointed deputy Brooke Adams, who will officially begin his duties in September.

"Brooke is coming on board and he's very eager and anxious," Miller said. "I think he's got a good knack for what it takes to be a coroner investigator."

Miller also took a moment to thank Glaze, who has taken on administrative tasks for the coroner's office in addition to her job with the health department.

"Beth Glaze volunteered -- with no extra pay -- to do our legwork with paperwork and so on and so forth," Miller said. "She does a tremendous job and never received a raise for that. I so appreciate it."

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Thanks Beth!

-- Posted by whats-my-beef on Fri, Aug 26, 2011, at 7:43 AM

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