Families continue to wait months for autopsy results in Erie County

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB)- There are 138 families in mourning in Western New York. Twenty-four of those families know their loved one died of an opioid overdose this year. For the 114 other lives lost this year, an overdose is suspected.

“It’s hard to imagine that you will never attend your kids wedding, graduation, there will never be a girlfriend, there will never be dinners and they will never get old,” said Avi Israel, the founder of Save the Michaels of the World.

Avi Israel’s 20-year-old son Michael took his own life 2011 after battling an addiction that started when he was prescribed narcotic pain killers for Crohn’s disease.

Israel now hosts a grief group for other parents. In May 2016, he introduced us to half a dozen parents who waited four to six months to get their child’s autopsy results.

The Erie County Health Department told us last year the delay was because the medical examiner’s office was overwhelmed because there were so many overdose deaths. The toxicology lab had more tests to develop and validate.

Israel said families are waiting just as long for autopsy results, a year later.

“We have families that come in here who have lost kids in January, March, and early April, we have families that have been here since late last year and are still waiting for the medical examiner report,” said Israel.

Erie County Commissioner of Health Dr. Gale Burstein told News 4 the medical examiner’s office has about one new suspected overdose case every day.

“It’s really a lot of work, it’s very busy,” said Burstein.

She said it’s taking longer than the usual 60 to 90 days to get autopsy results to families. The Health Department has taken steps to complete autopsies more quickly since our story aired in May 2016.

“We made some substantial changes both to the toxicology lab and the medical examiner’s office,” said Burstein.

She told News 4 they have a new mass spectrometer, which will help detect lower levels of drugs like Fentanyl. They have a new digital body scanner. They’ve obtained other instruments that will allow tests to be completed in a shorter amount of time. Dr. Burstein said the medical examiner’s office is also using new software which will streamline data, and the office is being renovated.

Some of the upgrades were included in the 2017 budget, others are older capital projects coming into fruition now.

County Executive Mark Poloncarz also announced this spring the county received a $10,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice’s New York- New Jersey High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task force. The money is being awarded in the form of supplies for the medical examiner’s office.

Dr. Burstein told News 4 they need more help.

“We need help everywhere, another medical examiner, more toxicologists, more people to investigate cases,” said Burstein. “Everybody in the medical examiner’s office is really doing the job of two people.”

She said the caseload for the medical examiners has increased by 61 percent since 2011 but there have also been budget cuts.

“In 2011, Chris Collins made some pretty severe cuts to the medical examiner’s office which resulted in a 40 percent decrease in staffing,” she said.

Chris Collins was serving as County Executive at that time.

Burstein said some of those positions have been restored by current County Executive Mark Poloncarz administration but not all.

“With our financial situation in the county, it’s hard to get a large number of positions approved by the legislature,” said Burstein. “It would be great in next year’s budget if we were able to restore more positions we had lost under the Collin’s administration.”

The spokesperson for the legislature’s majority caucus told News 4 the legislature passed the 2017 budget for the medical examiner’s office exactly as it was handed to them by County Executive Poloncarz. It included a nearly $111,000 increase in funding.

Burstein said the burden doesn’t just fall on the county.

“The state discontinued its funding source to the medical examiner’s office,” said Burstein.

In 2012, the state eliminated Article 6 funding from the budget. According to Burstein, it paid for 36 percent of the medical examiner’s budget. She told News 4 if the money was available in 2017, the medical examiner’s office would’ve received $1.2 million.

News 4 reached out to nine state lawmakers, who represent Erie County, to see if they would support reinstating that funding. Six of those lawmakers responded to our inquiry.

Senator Patrick Gallivan, Senator Michael Ranzenhofer, Senator Chris Jacobs, Assemblyman Mickey Kearns, Assemblyman Sean Ryan and Assemblyman David DiPietro all told us they would support renewing the Article 6 funding.

News 4 also sat down with State Senator Tim Kennedy about what’s being done to give medical examiners relief statewide. He said he is working with Erie County officials to get feedback on the problem.

“If the state can step up and find a way legislatively to help to expedite the process and make the process more efficient and effective [..] we will do that,” said Kennedy. “We’re going to continue to work with family advocates, community advocates and with government and community leaders across Western New York and across the state to help expedite the process when in fact someone’s life is lost.”

Dr. Burstein explains the autopsy results provide essential information the county needs to fight the epidemic.

“If we didn’t have this information from the medical examiner’s office, we really wouldn’t have a handle on the number of people who are dying of this opioid outbreak,” said Burstein. ”We wouldn’t have a handle on the prevalence of fentanyl that’s causing about 75 percent of the opioid deaths in our community.”

She said there are 24 people in the medical examiner’s office, working hard to get autopsies completed.

“They are really dedicated to the cause,” said Burstein. “With this uptick in the number of opioid deaths, they are working harder than ever and I just think we need to be appreciative of them.”

While the county uses this information to prevent more people from dying from opioid overdoses, family members who have already lost a loved one are looking for peace.

“For Julie and I, when we got the letter, we actually went outside and sat on the front steps and read it together and it shakes you up, it shakes you up but it also brings you into reality that your kid is gone,” said Israel. “A lot of people need that sense of closure.”


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