Drug-related autopsies skyrocket for local coroners

JOHNSTOWN, Pa.  — Cambria County Coroner Jeffrey Lees has requested $40,000 in additional funds for operating his department and says drug overdoses are “a big part of it.”

“Our case volume is way up,” he said.

Autopsies and toxicology reports are squeezing the Cambria coroner’s department budget this year, with Lees saying he is running $10,000 in the red in this category alone.

Across the region, those who perform autopsies – both for government agencies and as private businesses – reported a spike in the number of deaths they investigate that are tied to drug abuse.

Due to the ongoing increase in drug-related fatalities, Cambria County allotted $180,000 for post-mortem examinations in the county’s 2016 budget after the office spent $195,000 in 2015 on the same line item.

That money was transferred from the county’s contingency fund, created to cover unexpected expenses and budget overages, bringing Lees’ budget for autopsies and toxicology reports to $220,000 of his department’s total $448,762 budget.

Lees said dealing with the increase is something out of his control as he works to accomplish his job to determine the cause and manner of each death.

“I cannot sacrifice a death investigation over a budget situation,” he said. “When I say that this drug epidemic is affecting everyone, it’s affecting everyone.”

‘The numbers speak …’

To date in 2016, Lees has responded to 60 deaths that have been confirmed as drug overdoses, with 20 pending toxicology results.

In 2015, Lees reported 58 total drug overdose deaths, 20 of which were linked to heroin.

Although he doesn’t yet have a number for heroin-related fatalities for 2016, Lees predicts it will be double the amount of last year.

Since January, Lees’ office has been able to save about $103,000 in cases where it’s clear the death occurred from a drug overdose by running only toxicology reports from bodily fluid samples.

Lees said if he hadn’t implemented this plan, his budget for autopsies and toxicology reports would have been emptied around April or May, with each autopsy costing $1,750 and toxicology reports ranging from $550 to $900.

Lees only has two other full-time deputy coroners and limited funding for per-diem deputies, which is nearly depleted for the year.

“The office in general has gotten much busier,” he said. “The cases have become much more complicated. I think the numbers speak for themselves.”