D.C. Department of Human Services Director David E. Rivers moved yesterday to beef up the District's rapidly declining medical examiner's office and has told officials there to report directly to him, taking responsibility for the office away from Public Health Commissioner Dr. Ernest Hardaway.
As a result of the actions, Dr. Douglas Dixon, who announced last week that he would resign as acting chief medical examiner, has agreed to continue in the job.
For years, the D.C. office was known as one of the best in the country. However, because of budget cutbacks and understaffing, local law enforcement officials recently began expressing the fear that the office could become too rushed to do a thorough job of determining causes of death and might miss important evidence of homicides.
Among the steps being taken include the immediate filling of four staff vacancies, including two physicians, bringing total staffing to 37, close to the level of two years ago.
Rivers said he will study whether doctors at the office should be exempt from an existing city requirement that city employes live in the District. He also plans to study salary levels of medical examiner's offices around the country to see if the District needs to raise salaries to attract and keep top-notch doctors.
Doctors in the office have complained that the residency requirement and their $56,500 annual salary--$30,000 below that of some cities--discourage applicants. Over the past year, three of the six doctors in the office have left, each citing frustrations over salary levels and an inadequate budget.
Rivers also ordered the immediate purchase of another ambulance for the office. It now has three and one doesn't work, Dixon said.
"We're gratified that the director has taken the interest and is going to address these problems," Dixon said in an interview. He added that he is confident that Rivers' actions will end the recent crisis in the office.
"This will be enough to bring it back up to par," Rivers said. "I think it will once again be considered one of the finest in the country."
Rivers said having the office report directly to him was "a management decision so I would be directly involved" and could make sure that actions are taken to ensure the quality of the office.
The decision follows bitter disputes between Public Health Commissioner Hardaway and the two men who have reported to him as head of the office since he became commissioner in January.
Dr. James Luke, the office's highly regarded chief medical examiner for 12 years until his resignation in May, and Dixon both fought with Hardaway over budget cuts and staffing.
Hardaway could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Last week Dixon abruptly announced he no longer wanted to head the office and was renouncing his title as acting chief, citing his problems in maintaining the quality of the office. That prompted Rivers' actions, which convinced Dixon to stay on.
"Mr. Rivers was somewhat shocked at the depth of the crisis," Dixon reported.
Yesterday Rivers met with Dixon and his staff to praise their work in the face of serious cutbacks and to reassure them that they would have his support. "It greatly enhanced the morale of the troops," Dixon said yesterday, noting that before Monday he had never talked with Rivers.
Rivers said yesterday that Dixon will be a top candidate for the permanent job as chief medical examiner, though the job still must be advertised.
By yesterday's action, the city will hire a clerk, a maintenance worker and two more doctors for the office, bringing the number of physicians to five.
Left unresolved is the issue of whether the two doctors to be hired should be forensic pathologists, who specialize in deaths by murder and accident. Dixon and others in the office strongly argue that those hired must be forensic pathologists rather than pathologists, who have less training and not as much familiarity with homicides.