Propelled by reports of medical examiner backlogs, screw-ups at death scenes and blown calls on causes of death, the New Jersey Senate Health Committee heard testimony Monday in Trenton about the state’s antiquated death investigation system.
The hearing comes on the heels of a new governor, Phil Murphy, taking office and vowing to support reforms.
One of the recurrent themes was the need for an independent system, free of oversight from the state Attorney General’s Office, which has ruled over the system since 1967, when the coroner system was replaced.
Chris Christie had no full-time state medical examiner during most of his eight years as governor, instead allowing a lawyer in the Attorney General’s Office without medical training to run the office which, by law, should have been overseen by a well-credentialed physician who is a pathologist.
And while there is a now new governor and a new incoming attorney general, the old ways apparently die hard.
A staffer from the Attorney General’s Office interrupted the new state medical examiner, Dr. Andrew Falzon, as he answered a reporter’s question about inadequate death scene investigations.
That was just after Falzon testified about a series of issues, such as staffing, pay, inadequate funding, speed and quality disparity from office-to- office, lack of accreditation, a failure to enforce standards, inadequate facilities and a need for independence from law enforcement oversight.
The staffer said all questions following the hearing had to go through the attorney general’s public information office.
Also testifying was Dr. Carolyn H. Revercomb, who runs the state-managed Southern Regional Medical Examiner’s Office. The office covers Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland counties.
Until her appointment two years ago, the office recently ran largely through per diem doctors with no real direct supervision.
Two of the per diems were Dr. Gerald Feigin, the regional medical examiner for Camden, Gloucester and
Salem counties, and Dr. Charles Siebert, a consulting pathologist. Both left other states after making questionable calls, migrating to New Jersey.
Revercomb said having her office in Woodbine, Cape May County, but her morgue at Shore Memorial Hospital in Somers Point, about 30 minutes away, makes working efficiently difficult.
One central office where all bodies are autopsied — or perhaps three regional offices but with death investigators scattered more widely — would be ideal, Falzon said.
Dr. Victor Weedn, whose credentials took more than two minutes to read, testified that in 2009, he quit a post as the acting New Jersey medical examiner in disgust.
The state has a poor reputation nationally, making it hard to attract and retain qualified MEs, he said.
The state association of undertakers – several senators who sat on the committee are morticians – also supported reforms, aimed mostly at improving autopsy turn-around time.
Among those testifying, only the state’s counties association resisted calls for swift legislative changes.
They instead asked to form a panel and do a study.