When Mahoning County Coroner Dr. David Kennedy used the words “pie in the sky” to refer to building a new county morgue – as opposed to upgrading the ventilation system at the existing one in the Oakhill Renaissance Place – he could well have been talking about finding a forensic pathologist to replace the late Dr. Joseph Ohr.
There is a nationwide shortage of pathologists, and the national opioid epidemic has exacerbated the problem.
Major metropolitan areas are snapping up qualified individuals as fast as they come on the market.
Indeed, Dr. Ohr, a Boardman native who died last month at age 53, joined the Mahoning County Coroner’s Office in 2009 from Franklin County, where he was a forensic pathologist.
Besides conducting autopsies, Ohr’s duties included testifying in court cases, preparing reports and ruling on the causes and manner of a person’s death.
His absence is being felt professionally and financially. Although he was paid $158,992 a year, he performed 125 to 150 autopsies a year.
Now, Mahoning County is paying the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s Office in Cleveland $1,275 per autopsy, plus $275 for transportation.
Kennedy, who has been coroner since 1994 and earns $69,739 a year, has maintained a private internal-medicine practice.
He said he works an average of 15 to 20 hours a week in an administrative capacity for the coroner’s office. Ohio law requires a coroner to be a physician, but not a forensic pathologist.
Kennedy does not perform autopsies or investigations, does not assist at autopsies and last visited a death scene for the coroner’s office four or five years ago.
Kennedy noted in an interview with The Vindicator that he was not elected, nor trained, as an investigator.
But given his obvious familiarity with what has been taking place in the state and the country over the many years he has been in office, it’s disappointing that Kennedy did not become a forensic pathologist and an investigator.
After all, his six terms in office showed he was in no political danger of losing his seat.
A CONTRAST IN TRUMBULL COUNTY
We raise the issue of the coroner bolstering his credentials because of the situation in neighboring Trumbull County.
For the past eight years, Dr. Humphrey Germaniuk has served as the full-time coroner in light of the fact that he’s also a forensic pathologist. He has served in that capacity for about 20 years.
In other words, Trumbull County has been spared the trials and tribulations that come with not having a coroner who is qualified to perform myriad other crucial duties. Last year, Germaniuk performed 328 autopsies, many of them related to heroin overdoses.
The coroner is paid $127,563 a year for managing the office, performing autopsies and conducting death-scene investigations.
He is 63 and expects to retire in four years, which is why he has been looking for a second medical examiner to conduct autopsies. The search began last year.
In Mahoning County, Dr. Kennedy is keeping his fingers crossed.
“Maybe we can find somebody that’s not happy with one of the bigger spots,” he said. He has set a salary range of $125,000 to $140,000 and is beginning the search in Ohio. However, Kennedy concedes that he may have to look nationwide.
To be sure, becoming a forensic pathologist isn’t a breeze. It’s a highly specialized endeavor. In addition to a bachelor’s and medical degrees, the individual must spend four or five years in a general pathology residency, and a two-year fellowship in forensic pathology.
That’s why requiring county coroners to be physicians and forensic pathologists is impractical.
“Rural counties across Ohio are already having difficulty finding qualified candidates to serve as coroners, so I would be reluctant to raise the standards,” said state Sen. Joseph Schiavoni of Boardman, D-33rd.
Schiavoni’s opinion is shared by state Reps. John Boccieri of Poland, D-59th, and Michele Lepore-Hagan of Youngstown, D-58th.
But when you have a coroner who has been in office since 1994 and has experienced the difficulties in finding someone to fill one of the most important positions in the justice system, is it fair to raise the issue of Kennedy’s apparent lack of initiative? We think it is.
In 2002, after Dr. Jesse Giles, deputy coroner and forensic pathologist, left for a similar position in Jacksonville, Fla., Kennedy advertised for the position and said he was having “no luck.”
“People are ignoring it,” he said of the advertisement for the job.
Today, it’s going to be even more difficult, given the rising death rates due to the opioid epidemic.