The District is actively considering giving $10,000 pay increases to its medical examiners and other doctors employed by the city in an effort to attract more qualified physicians, Department of Human Services Director David Rivers said yesterday.
City doctors are subject to a salary cap of $63,700 a year, and the $10,000 would come in the form of an annual "bonus," Rivers said. D.C. medical examiners have complained their salaries are as much as $30,000 below those in some other cities.
In a wide-ranging interview, Rivers also said he expects his fiscal 1986 budget, which will be proposed in January, to include major increases for drug-abuse programs and mental health-care reorganization. A new program for drug counseling and treatment for D.C. prisoners is imminent, he added.
The Office of the D.C. Medical Examiner was once considered one of the best in the country, but it has recently developed serious problems due to a lack of staff and resources.
Five medical examiners left the office over an 18-month period, and it has been without a permanent chief since Dr. James Luke resigned in May 1983, after 12 years in office. With the departure in July of the deputy medical examiner, Dr. Douglas Dixon, the office was left with three of its six medical examiner positions vacant, though one was recently filled.
Luke and Dixon both cited uncompetitive salaries, budget cuts and a requirement that medical examiners live in the District as reasons for problems in the office and the resignations.
The office handles more than 4,000 cases a year and performs more than 1,000 autopsies. Accurate autopsies are important to police and prosecutors in providing evidence in criminal cases.
"We know we have to raise that salary," Rivers said. The $10,000 increase may come in the form of a straight bonus, but the city also is considering some sort of special arrangement with area hospitals that would enable doctors to boost their salaries by working there.
Once the salary is increased and a new chief medical examiner chosen, "the office will be back on target again. We will have a top-flight office again," Rivers predicted.
At the same time, salary increases would have to be arranged for other city doctors, such as those at D.C. General Hospital, so that one city-run operation would not simply drain another.
"This thing is very delicate, because you have 200 other doctors in the department," Rivers said. "We have to look at salaries across the board."
On the 1986 budget, Rivers said there would be significant increases from the $408 million fiscal 1985 level for expanded drug abuse programs for PCP users and for the reorganization of the city's mental health system to accommodate the planned deinstitutionalization of large numbers of mental patients from St. Elizabeths Hospital.
"We're not looking at any cutbacks," in other areas, he said. This contrasts with two years ago, when DHS bore the brunt of an austerity budget Mayor Marion Barry proposed to avoid tax increases on the middle class.
The department soon will award a major contract to start a new drug treatment program for D.C. prisoners, Rivers said.
The program will be voluntary and is being based on information gathered from urinalysis done earlier this year on prisoners at Lorton, which found that about 10 percent of the prisoners had traces of drugs in their systems.
Rivers also repeated city objections to an initiative on the Nov. 6 ballot that would require the District to formally adopt a policy of providing shelter for any homeless person who asked for it.
The city spent $3.2 million on its homeless shelters last year, and Rivers speculated that the figure could leap to $64 million if some 15,000 homeless people demanded a bed every night.
The District's shelters for the homeless often have empty beds now, but Rivers acknowledged the city often cannot get homeless persons to come off the grates and into the shelters.