Medical examiners are overwhelmed causing families to wait for answers

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB)- Families throughout Western New York are waiting months for answers about what happened to their loved ones.

More than 250 people died of opioid overdose deaths in Erie County in 2015 and the Health Department told News 4 its medical examiners are overwhelmed. It’s taking months for autopsy results to reach family members.

David Edick lost his son in July 2015 from a heroin overdose. He said Benjamin had been clean for 80 days when he died.

“It was a beautiful July morning, with a cup of coffee in his hand, and he said ‘Dad I’ll see ya tonight, love ya’ and out the door he went,” said Edick.  “I said ‘Alright, see ya tonight.’ He didn’t come home that night.”

Benjamin Edick was 30 years old. His battle with addiction started when he hurt his back at his job and was given oxycodone, then he started using heroin. Benjamin moved in with his father David while he went through treatment.

“He was really trying to get better but then eventually there was some trigger that said I got to go do that today and it was too much,” said David Edick.

Edick sent in the paperwork to get the autopsy results. When he called the Erie County Medical Examiner’s Office, he said they told him it would take three or four months to get the report.

“He had been there 20 or 30 years and he told me, ‘Mr. Edick I’ve never seen anything like this since I’ve been here, the amount of young people we are seeing and the young people we are having to report,’” said Edick.

The Erie County Department of Health said 256 people died of opioid overdoses in the county in 2015, double the year before.

Preliminary data shows about 44 percent of those deaths happened in the City of Buffalo, while 40 percent happened in the suburbs. The average age of the victims is 38 years old and more than half of the victims have been white men, according to the Health Department.

“In 2015 we had about five suspected cases a week and they are doubling unfortunately,” said Dr. Gale Burstein, the Erie County Health Commissioner. “There are different counties that contract with our medical examiners that are also coming in.”

County Executive Mark Poloncarz announced the average number of people dying every week in Erie County has decreased from 11 victims to nine victims. So far in 2016, 55 people have died of opioid overdoses and another 129 people died from possible overdoses.

Overdose cases can be complicated. Dr. Burstein said deaths labeled ‘suspected chemical intoxication’ require toxicology testing.

“They are really overwhelmed, especially the toxicology lab within the medical examiner’s office,” she said. “They not only have more tests to perform, they have more tests to develop and validate.”

The drugs being used are changing. Preliminary Health Department data for 2015 shows fentanyl accounted for 43 percent of overdose deaths, up 20 percent from the year before.

The number of deaths caused by a combination of heroin and fentanyl also grew 10 percent since 2014.

Dr. Burstein told News 4 the medical examiner tries to get the autopsy results out in 60 to 90 days.

“Unfortunately, now they are not always able to achieve that,” said Burstein.

The wait can be even longer in Rochester.

“I did talk to the medical examiner and we were told six months,” said Rebecca Baker, who lost her son three months ago.

We called Monroe County and made multiple requests for an interview, which went unanswered. The medical examiner told us on the phone it takes about five months to complete an autopsy.

Baker’s son died from a suspected overdose but she’s still waiting for answers.

“It’s like someone sitting on your chest, you just want to know,” said Baker. “He was doing so well for so long. As a parent you need to know what happened and then maybe we’ll sleep a little better at night.”

The wait can also delay major decisions for family members.

“You cannot file any kind of claims,” said David Edick. “You cannot move forward with numerous things, whether it’s insurance or how to take care of other obligations your child may have had, until you have a reason for death and that’s the autopsy.”

Edick told News 4 he got his son’s autopsy results four months after Benjamin’s death.

“I’ll never forget, I just came into my house and I sat down and I just laid it there,” said Edick. “I just opened it and read it.”

He learned his son died of acute heroin intoxication. Edick said he read it twice and hasn’t read it again.

“My choice is that my son would want me to go on, my son would want me to go on,” he said.

We asked the State Department of Health if it will give more resources to medical examiners and a representative told us that responsibility falls with county governments. We are still waiting to hear what Erie County plans to do.

The Health Department told News 4 it is important to the county to know how someone died so it can come up with a plan to combat the epidemic.

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