Mahoning County coroner’s office in limbo


Published: Sun, May 14, 2017 @ 12:10 a.m.

AGENCY AWAITING MORGUE UPGRADES, NEW PATHOLOGIST

RELATED: Don't raise coroner standards, legislators say

By Peter H. Milliken

milliken@vindy.com

YOUNGSTOWN

Permanent morgue ventilation improvements will soon be made for the Mahoning County Coroner’s Office at Oakhill Renaissance Place even as it seeks a forensic pathologist to replace Dr. Joseph Ohr, who died last month.

Meanwhile, David Ditzler, chairman of the Mahoning County commissioners, continues to favor constructing a new morgue, possibly for use as a regional facility that he said could result in cost-savings for Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties.

Even though he favors a new, freestanding morgue, Ditzler voted with his colleagues, Commissioners Carol Rimedio-Righetti and Anthony Traficanti, to spend $534,000 for comprehensive ventilation improvements at the current morgue.

“We’re a board. We work together. We work collectively, and we all need to move in the same direction,” Ditzler said, explaining his vote.

Ditzler said he believes a new morgue could be built for $2 million in a freestanding building on county-owned land at Oakhill, or on Industrial Road or adjacent to the new county dog shelter that is now under construction on Meridian Road.

“I think it’s pie in the sky,” Dr. David Kennedy, Mahoning County coroner, said of building a new morgue.

“I think it’s a great idea, but I don’t think anybody has the money to do that,” Dr. Kennedy said.

Oakhill, which is the former Forum Health Southside Medical Center, is now a county office complex.

“It served us well when that building was a hospital,” Ditzler said of the Oakhill morgue.

“I don’t think a morgue belongs in an office building,” he added.

“We don’t have enough work for two forensic pathologists for sure. We can keep one forensic pathologist very busy,” Dr. Kennedy said of the Mahoning County case load.

“At the same time, we can’t really take a lot of outside cases in for one pathologist because he’s busy enough with just our cases,” Dr. Kennedy said.

Dr. Ohr, who performed 125 to 150 autopsies a year, did not work on cases from outside Mahoning County because “he was too busy with Mahoning County cases,” Dr. Kennedy explained.

poor ventilation

Poor ventilation at Oakhill has caused the coroner’s office to try to schedule autopsies on badly decomposed bodies late in the day to reduce odor complaints.

York-Mahoning Mechanical Contractors Inc. will ideally perform the ventilation improvement work before the county hires the new pathologist and resumes autopsies at Oakhill, Dr. Kennedy said.

The work includes installing a ventilation system that meets current codes, closing off walls and ceiling space in the basement autopsy room and installing a new autopsy table, new lighting, a new laundry facility, an ionization system and a portable air purification unit and new evidence storage, specimen and drying rooms.

“Regardless what you do with the building at Oakhill, you still need to fix the ventilation,” Rimedio-Righetti said.

The illness and untimely death of Dr. Ohr has forced the county to send bodies to the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s Office in Cleveland for autopsies.

Dr. Kennedy said the bodies will have to be sent to Cleveland at $1,275 per autopsy, plus $275 for transportation, until a new Mahoning County forensic pathologist can be hired.

Mahoning County saves about $50,000 a year by performing autopsies in Youngstown, he said.

The coroner’s $860,212 budget for 2017 comes from the county’s general fund, and the county commissioners would have to approve any increase.

The cost isn’t the only consequence of sending bodies to Cleveland: Sending bodies to Cleveland likely increases the time between death and release of a body to a funeral home from one to three days to three to seven days, Dr. Kennedy said.

“Cleveland’s overwhelmed with a lot of work,” Dr. Kennedy observed.

It’s also much easier for local detectives to attend autopsies and share their observations from the death scene with the pathologist if the autopsy is done in Youngstown, he added.

Pathologist search

Dr. Kennedy said he will likely advertise a salary range of $125,000 to $140,000 annually for the forensic pathologist’s job.

Dr. Ohr, who joined the county in 2009, had a final annual salary of $158,992.

Although he’s starting the search at the state level, Dr. Kennedy said he would “more than likely” have to conduct a national search for Dr. Ohr’s replacement.

“Maybe we can find somebody that’s not happy at one of the bigger spots,” in a big city medical examiner’s office, Dr. Kennedy said.

Dr. Kennedy said he’s not aware of any available forensic pathologists with family ties to the Mahoning Valley that would be similar to those of Dr. Ohr, who graduated from Boardman High School.

“I’m not sure we’re ever going to replace him,” Dr. Kennedy said, describing Dr. Ohr as “a very caring person and a very knowledgeable person and very compassionate.”

Forensic pathologists are highly educated specialists, who have bachelor’s and medical degrees, followed by four or five years in a general pathology residency and a two-year fellowship in forensic pathology.

coroner’s staff

The Mahoning County coroner’s staff consists of three investigators and two secretaries, all full-time, and Dr. Kennedy, who works part time.

Besides hiring a forensic pathologist, Dr. Kennedy said he hopes to fill a fourth investigator position on his staff, which recently became vacant.

Dr. Kennedy said he’s in the process of hiring a physician, who will not be a pathologist, to serve as a part-time, temporary deputy coroner to cover times when Dr. Kennedy is unavailable or out of town until the new pathologist is hired.

Dr. Kennedy, who has been coroner since 1994 and has an annual coroner’s salary of $69,739, also has a private internal medicine practice.

Under Ohio law, county coroners must be physicians, but they need not be pathologists.

Dr. Kennedy said he works an average of 15 to 20 hours a week in an administrative capacity for the coroner’s office.

On an annual basis, Dr. Kennedy’s hourly rate would be $89.41 if he works 15 hours a week or $67.06 if he works 20 hours a week for the coroner’s office.

He said he performs no autopsies or investigations, does not assist at autopsies and last visited a death scene for the coroner’s office about four or five years ago.

Dr. Kennedy said he was neither elected, nor trained, as an investigator.

“I’m not an investigator, and I don’t want to be an investigator,” he added.

Dr. Kennedy said he rarely goes to death scenes “because I don’t have anything to offer. I send an investigator there to take pictures.”

TRUMBULL CONTRAST

The situation in Mahoning County contrasts with that of Trumbull County, where the coroner, Dr. Humphrey Germaniuk, a forensic pathologist, works full-time for that county, performs autopsies and death scene investigations and earns $127,563 a year.

Dr. Germaniuk has been the county’s forensic pathologist for about 20 years and coroner for eight years.

In 2015, Dr. Germaniuk received the Samuel Gerber Award — the highest award given by the Ohio State Coroners Association.

The Trumbull County morgue is at ValleyCare Trumbull Memorial Hospital.

Besides Dr. Germaniuk, the Trumbull County coroner’s office staff consists of four investigators, all of them registered nurses, a secretary and a morgue technician, all full-time. Its budget is $713,254 this year.

Dr. Germaniuk performed 328 autopsies last year, many of them in heroin overdose cases.

That, and the fact that he expects to retire in four years, led Dr. Germaniuk, 63, to begin his search last year for a second medical examiner to help perform autopsies.


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