Making a Killing

Double dipping, understaffing plague the M.E.'s office

(Chief investigator Banks concedes that the Medical Examiner's office is understaffed but emphatically denies there is any corner-cutting at the morgue.)

Another problem cited by the auditor is the inadequacy of the computer technology used by the M.E.'s office. In fact, the office still uses typewriters to record death investigations. The report suggests a more extensive use of computers to "track the progress of a case from beginning to end" and "provide the basis for establishing performance standards." The computer shortage also makes it difficult to track the billing and payments for private autopsies and other services such as toxicology reports. The county is owed about $60,000 in delinquent bills for work done for other counties, according to the report.

One possible reason for the problems plaguing the M.E.'s office is suggested in the report's comparison of funding with the office's counterpart in Dallas County. Although Dallas County has roughly a million fewer people than Harris County, the Dallas County M.E.'s office has an annual budget of $5.6 million -- approximately $1 million more than the M.E.'s office here. Put another way, Dallas County devotes $3.03 per capita to its medical examiner, while Harris County spends $1.63.

One way or the other, change is coming to the M.E.'s office in 1996. An outside audit of the office is under way, and a search committee appointed by Commissioners Court is still scouring the nation to find a replacement for Dr. Joseph Jachimczyk, who retired last summer after 35 years as the county's chief medical examiner. Meanwhile, County Judge Robert Eckels strongly hints that one of those changes will be the discontinuance of splitting the fees for private autopsies with the pathologists.

"I'd like to see [the private autopsies] be just another part of the pathologists' job," said Eckels.

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