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November 16, 2013

Autopsies up in Lawrence County

NEW CASTLE — An increase in drug overdoses this year has resulted in more autopsies by the Lawrence County coroner.

The Lawrence County commissioners yesterday approved the transfer of $50,000 from their contingency fund to the coroner’s autopsy budget line item to cover potential autopsy expenses for the rest of the year.

“It’s a statutory duty of the office,” Commissioner Dan Vogler said.

 “We need it because we’ve had 22 drug overdoses this year so far,” Coroner Russell S. Noga said yesterday. “We usually have between seven and 10. The number is up quite a bit.”

“There’s a high concentration in the area of heroin, suboxone, cocaine and other drugs, on top of prescription drugs and combinations that end up becoming very deadly for people,” he said.

The coroner’s office doesn’t order autopsies unless it’s necessary, but is required by law to perform them for specific circumstances.

He explained that autopsies are performed for suspicious deaths, homicides, accidents, apparent overdoses, anything that involves children under 18, sudden infant death syndrome, and other deaths with extenuating circumstances.

According to the commissioners, the coroner typically spends between $80,000 and $85,000 a year on autopsies.

Noga said the county pays for 65 to 70 autopsies a year, “but percentage-wise, we’re up from last year,” Noga said.

He said the cost of an autopsy has not significantly increased, but there has been a jump in the number of them because of the growing number of overdose deaths.

He noted that he recently attended training in Pittsburgh, where six other county coroners said they, too, had to request transfers of between $30,000 and $60,000 into their autopsy budgets because of the increase in overdoses.

“It’s a statewide problem and I think it’s a problem across the country,” Noga said.

Each autopsy costs between $2,000 and $3,000, he estimated, and that includes transportation and toxicology testing for the presence of drugs or alcohol. The cost depends upon the circumstances of the deaths and whether toxicology testing is necessary.

Lawrence County’s autopsies are conducted at Heritage Valley Health System Beaver by one of two forensic pathologists there, Noga said.

“With toxicologies, there usually is an inherent increase in costs. A lot of times you have to test for every drug that’s there because you don’t know which one they took,” he said, noting that the county switched laboratories this year and because of a different testing method saw a reduction in lab costs.

Noga started the year with about $120,000 in his autopsy budget. He said he hopes the $50,000 will get him through the last two months of the year.

“That $50,000 is going to cover some bills we already have,” he said.

(Email: dwachter@ncnewsonline.com)

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