Drug overdose deaths challenge coroner’s office

By Peter H. Milliken



As the Mahoning County coroner, Dr. David Kennedy said his top priority is to continue to provide thorough death investigations in the most cost-efficient manner.

Dr. Kennedy, who has been the coroner for 22 years, is a Democrat seeking re-election Nov. 8.

His Republican challenger, Dr. John Vargo, neither filled out a Vindicator candidate questionnaire nor accepted The Vindicator’s invitation to an interview with its editorial board.

As the part-time county coroner, Dr. Kennedy earns $63,255 a year.

As Dr. Kennedy seeks re-election, his office is challenged by the epidemic of drug-overdose deaths.

In Mahoning County, the coroner’s office logged 58 drug-overdose deaths in 2013, 51 in 2014 and 68 in 2015.

In the first nine months of 2016, 52 drug-overdose deaths were confirmed here, and that number likely will rise as additional lab-test results are reported, Dr. Kennedy said.

The demands on the office are increasing as prosecutors are becoming more aggressive in prosecuting drug dealers for manslaughter in overdose cases, and autopsies and more thorough lab tests are needed to prove their cases, Dr. Kennedy explained.

Besides Dr. Kennedy, the coroner’s office staff consists of Dr. Joseph Ohr, the forensic pathologist; four investigators; and two secretaries.

The office operates on an annual budget of about $800,000.

“They want the toxicology to be really fine-tuned. What kind of fentanyl was it? Was it a carboxyfentanyl? Was it a different kind of fentanyl?” Dr. Kennedy said of prosecutors’ needs in overdose-death cases.

“You have to do a special tox test, which costs more money,” likely $150 to $250 more per case, he added.

“There’s been a big crackdown on pharmaceutical opioids,” so addicts have moved to heroin, he observed.

“Now, fentanyl is becoming very common,” because it can be produced in a makeshift lab in a garage and doesn’t require growing poppies, he explained.

The other major issue facing the coroner’s office is its quarters in the former Forum Health Southside Medical Center morgue.

That former hospital morgue, located in the county-owned Oakhill Renaissance Place government office complex, last was upgraded in 1970.

The county commissioners are considering various options for upgrading ventilation at the current morgue to reduce odors at Oakhill when badly decomposed bodies are brought to the facility.

Also under discussion by the commissioners is building a new, free-standing, state-of-the-art morgue, which Dr. Kennedy said would be desirable if it’s affordable.

Commissioner David Ditzler recently said a new morgue could be a joint facility of Trumbull, Mahoning and Columbiana counties.

“I’d like to sit down with Trumbull and Columbiana county [officials] and see if the three counties can go together on a morgue,” Ditzler said.

“If you can get other counties to pitch in, I think it’s great,” Dr. Kennedy said of the joint morgue idea.

Also in contested races on the Nov. 8 ballot are Democratic County Recorder Noralynn Palermo, and her Republican challenger, Steven M. Carter; and Democratic Clerk of Courts Tony Vivo, and his Republican challenger, David Shaffer.

The recorder’s job pays $65,262 annually.

The clerk of courts earns $85,344 annually.

Carter did not complete a Vindicator candidate questionnaire.

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