PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Oregon State Police confirmed to KOIN 6 that a staffing crisis in the State Medical Examiner’s Office means services to counties could be suspended as soon as July.
Of Oregon’s 36 counties, 14 currently rely on the SMEO which means if services are cut, counties will be responsible for signing death certificates in routine cases. This will allow the SMEO to prioritize infant deaths and deaths suspected to be homicide.
According to an email obtained by KOIN 6, the SMEO has been understaffed for more than three decades, but its workload has more than doubled in the last five or so years, thanks to COVID, the opioid epidemic, increasing homicide rates and struggling county systems.
“The current workload is unsustainable — and it’s expected to continue increasing. Prior efforts have been insufficient to mitigate the workload, so drastic measures are necessary to restore a manageable balance,” according to the email.
The email indicates the overwhelming demand required the Chief M.E. to perform seven homicide autopsies in a single weekend while a first-year physician has 17 pending homicides cases. Beyond the actual examinations, sources say physicians have been tasked with signing up to 1,000 death certificates each year which require additional review and research.
To meet the current demand, according to the email, there needs be more than ten physicians and about the same number of morgue attendants staffed at the Clackamas morgue. The Clackamas morgue is posed to lose two of its four physicians currently employed this summer, however.
The other two state pathologists, who both have been working for more than 30 years, are located in Springfield and Central Point. And in the coming weeks, one of those examiners is slated to take a prolonged leave, meaning more work will be handed off to Clackamas.
Ahead of the expected service reduction, sources told KOIN 6 that the SMEO has petitioned the Oregon Department of Administrative Services to adjust pathologist compensation to be more competitive. The governor’s office has also been alerted to the staffing crisis.
In the meantime, the SMEO is working to increase workspace and cold storage at the Clackamas morgue, along with building new morgue facilities in both Eugene and Central Point, which aren’t expected to be complete until 2026.
“This situation is dynamic, and no plans have been set in stone, but county administrators should be advised that county ME services provided by the state are likely to be suspended on July 1, 2023.”
OSP declined to provide further comment.