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“We’re getting buried:” Drug-related deaths could cost medical examiner’s office its accreditation

Milwaukee County Medical Examiner's Office

MILWAUKEE -- The rising number of drug-related deaths could cost the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner's Office its accreditation. This, as the county is close to crossing a crucial threshold.

When he arrives each morning, Dr. Brian Peterson holds his breath while he counts the growing number of bodies awaiting autopsies in Milwaukee County. Many days Dr. Peterson's waiting room, a walk-in cooler, is full.

Milwaukee County Medical Examiner's Office

Dr. Brian Peterson

"And the numbers are stunning," said Dr. Peterson.

Milwaukee County pathologists have preformed 1,461 autopsies so far this year. A majority of those cases involve drug overdoses. The youngest victim -- a 2-year-old.

"The overdose deaths are going up and they all come to us," said Dr. Peterson.

The drug-related death toll -- up 10 percent from last year -- is exhausting the medical examiner's office to the point of possibly losing its full accreditation.

Milwaukee County Medical Examiner's Office

The National Association of Medical Examiners limits the number of autopsies pathologists can perform per year. The Milwaukee office has already surpassed the recommended number.

Milwaukee County Medical Examiner's Office

If Milwaukee's team performs more than 155 autopsies between now (December 7th) and the end of December, its full accreditation could drop -- giving defense attorneys plenty of reasonable doubt.

"If we're pointing out to a jury that the person that's rendering an opinion over how someone died lacks accreditation because they are overworked, it calls into question the validity of their opinions," said Jonathon LaVoy, partner at Kim & LaVoy.

Jonathon LaVoy

Even if the Milwaukee County Board hires another pathologist -- finding a qualified candidate is difficult.

"There are not enough pathologists. There are probably about one-third of what we need right now -- and it's an older specialty. A lot of people are getting ready to retire," said Dr. Peterson.

Sending cases to another county isn't an option either. There are only four labs in Wisconsin.

Dr. Peterson's five-person team covers Milwaukee and four surrounding counties.

"There is simply no place else to send these bodies," said Dr. Peterson.

And raising the national autopsy limit is out of the question.

Milwaukee County Medical Examiner's Office

"I've noticed that in my own work, I'll look back and say, 'why didn't I sign off on this case? Oh look, I forgot to order a tox screen'. Not a serious error, but an error nonetheless," said Dr. Peterson.

Medical examiners all over the country are dealing with the same issue.

"These addicts keep dying and we are getting buried in these cases," said Dr. Peterson.

Milwaukee County Medical Examiner's Office