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Overdose Deaths Swamp State Medical Examiner's Office


During his annual State of the State address, Gov. Gary Herbert called on lawmakers to help end Utah’s drug epidemic, which has severely stretched the resources of state health agencies — including the office in charge of issuing autopsy reports.

Dr. Erik Christensen, the state’s new chief medical examiner, testified before a House Social Services Appropriations Subcommittee earlier this week that their office reviewed more than 3,000 cases last year, an increase of more than 8 percent.

He says the majority of cases they’re handling these days are suicides and drug overdoses — cases which take more resourcesto review.

“The autopsy itself is quick, but the determination of the levels of drugs in their system requires investigation of a lot of factors to make a determination if it was intentional or accidental,” he says. “Our sort of ongoing comment in the office is, ‘Well, if it wasn’t for drug overdoses, we’d be adequately staffed.’”

Lawmakers appropriated roughly $1 million last session to address staffing and turnaround issues that have caused a severe backlog in autopsy reports. Christensen says although their goal is to reduce their final report time to 45 days, they’re still well above that.

“At the time that we were requesting funds last year, our turnaround time for reports was about 150 days," he says. "Currently, so far this year to date, it’s about 110 days.”


The state needs to reduce its report time to below 90 days before it can become nationally accredited, a rating its lacked for two decades. Christensen says this fact, along with low pay and long hours, makes it harder to attract more talent.


He says they’ve made some progress though, hiring three full-time pathologists, who are scheduled to start this summer. But he anticipates his office will continue to face challenges with a grueling workload and rapid population growth in the region.


Julia joined KUER in 2016 after a year reporting at the NPR member station in Reno, Nev. During her stint, she covered battleground politics, school overcrowding, and any story that would take her to the crystal blue shores of Lake Tahoe. Her work earned her two regional Edward R. Murrow awards. Originally from the mountains of Western North Carolina, Julia graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2008 with a degree in journalism. She’s worked as both a print and radio reporter in several states and several countries — from the 2008 Beijing Olympics to Dakar, Senegal. Her curiosity about the American West led her to take a spontaneous, one-way road trip to the Great Basin, where she intends to continue preaching the gospel of community journalism, public radio and podcasting. In her spare time, you’ll find her hanging with her beagle Bodhi, taking pictures of her food and watching Patrick Swayze movies.
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