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Too Many Autopsies: Milwaukee Co. Medical Examiner's Office could lose accreditation

MILWAUKEE (CBS-58) --- 

The Milwaukee County Medical Examiner's Office is at risk of losing its accreditation, because of a problem it has no control over.

Nationwide, Forensic Pathologists are only allowed to perform 325 autopsies each year. If they cross that limit, they lose full accreditation.

"The maximum number of autopsies that we could do this year, based on the number of staff we have, is about 1,625," says Chief Medical Examiner Brian Peterson. "My projection right now, based on numbers up until yesterday, is we're going to hit 1,588."

That means 32 unexpected autopsies, would push the department over the limit. 

"I try not to spend too much time worrying, because I'm pretty busy, but I think the chances are probably 50/50 that we will," he says.  

The National Association of Medical Examiners sets that autopsy limit as part of its standards for accreditation. 

"At a certain level, you start losing the fine tuning," says Dr. Peterson. "You have more opportunity for making mistakes, you get tired, you miss things."

It's a problem that could impact court cases in at least 5 Southeast Wisconsin counties. 

The Milwaukee Co. Medical Examiner performs autopsies on all "unnatural deaths" for Milwaukee, Racine, Kenosha, Ozaukee, and Jefferson Counties. They're routinely called upon to testify in court cases involving their findings on cause of death.

"You'd have to explain, every time you testify in court, that we used to be fully accredited, and we aren't anymore," says Dr. Peterson. 

Defense Attorneys say they'd waste no time attacking that aspect in a court case. 

"You're always looking for, as I tell my clients, a little thread to pull on," says Attorney Paul Bucher. "In close cases, that would give the defense an opportunity to raise an issue, where there shouldn't be an issue." 

Peterson says there's no immediate fix. They can't send the bodies to neighboring counties, and they can't simply stop performing autopsies.

"You can't just stop, who do you tell no to?" he says. "There really is no exit."

The state's opioid crisis has contributed significantly to the increase in autopsies. This year, the county is on pace for more than 400 drug deaths. 

The department has placed a request for an additional forensic pathologist in next year's budget.

The state's opioid crisis has contributed significantly to the increase in autopsies. This year, the county is on pace for more than 400 drug deaths. 

County Board Chairman Theodore Lipscomb says that will likely be approved by the board, writing the following statement to CBS-58:

"Funding for additional positions in the Medical Examiner's Office is included in the Finance Committee's recommendation to the County Board. We have all prioritized this office because of the increased workload and the many effects of the opioid crisis."

Peterson says the guarantee is necessary, as numbers will likely rise again next year. 

"If we can come to them and say we have funding to hire another pathologist, that will go a long way toward eliminating that condition," he says. "This year, we're 10% higher than last year, and I wouldn't be surprised if we're another 10% next year." 

For now, they plan on accepting the same amount of autopsy requests. 

"I don't want to tell a family, I'm sorry, your son or daughter wasn't important enough because we have to worry about our accreditation," says Dr. Peterson. "We can't do that to our community, so we're kind of stuck. We'll just see how many now." 


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