Autopsy-Report Backlog Reduced, Study Says

By Yolanda Woodlee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 4, 2007

The District's chief medical examiner has "significantly reduced" two major problems -- a backlog of unfinished autopsy reports and unclaimed bodies in the morgue -- that have hampered the office for years, according to a report released by the D.C. inspector general's office.

Marie-Lydie Y. Pierre-Louis, who was appointed chief medical examiner in December 2004, has made substantial gains in improving the office, the review found.

"Of the 79 recommendations made in our initial inspection report, [the medical examiner's office] has complied fully with 50" over the past four years, Inspector General Charles J. Willoughby wrote. He added that 12 other recommendations were in partial compliance.

The report concludes that the office has made improvements in identifying bodies, conducting autopsies and disposing of biohazardous waste. Still, Willoughby found, there is a backlog of unwritten autopsy reports, 13 bodies had been stored more than a month and the office lacks adequate staff, particularly for transporting and handling bodies and completing building maintenance. In July, Willoughby warned city officials that there was a shortage of investigators to respond to death scenes within 24 hours.

Willoughby urged the office, which is responsible for investigating and certifying all violent or unexplained deaths, to take steps to get inspected and accredited by the National Association of Medical Examiners.

The report, which was released last week, comes as Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) continues to seek an extended temporary change in a law that requires the medical examiner to be a certified forensic pathologist. The council changed the law in late 2004 to allow Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) to appoint Pierre-Louis, a deputy who had worked in the agency for 18 years. She does not have the required certification in forensic pathology by the American Board of Pathology.

Pierre-Louis, who is paid $185,000 a year, was appointed to complete the term of Jonathan L. Arden, who resigned after allegations of sexual harassment, racial discrimination and dereliction of duty. His six-year term expired April 29.

Since February, the city has been advertising for a board-certified chief medical examiner, who would be appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the council to serve a six-year statutory term.

In a letter to D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D), Fenty asked for a one-year waiver in the law, saying it would allow Pierre-Louis to remain in the position while the administration continues to search for a permanent chief medical examiner.

"Since accepting the position of [chief medical examiner] in 2004, Dr. Pierre-Louis and her staff have made significant improvements in the operations of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner," Fenty wrote.

The mayor credited her for eliminating a "historic backlog" of autopsy reports, filling critical vacancies and resolving long-standing health and safety issues at the morgue. Fenty also said that Pierre-Louis has implemented new policies and procedures and improved staff morale.

The council has given preliminary approval to Fenty's request and is considering permanent legislation to grant the waiver.

Fenty said he wants to keep Pierre-Louis in the position while the national search continues because it is critical to have continuity in the office while applying for accreditation.

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