The Maine Attorney General’s Office is looking for an increase in the state medical examiner’s budget to cover extra expenses driven mainly by a sharp spike in drug overdose deaths.

Attorney General Janet Mills, whose office oversees the Medical Examiner’s Office, said drug-related deaths are more expensive for the medical examiner to handle, usually because the toxicology reports used to determine what drug caused a death are more complex and time-consuming. Her office is seeking a budget increase of $230,000 for the examiner’s office.

The request comes as the number of drug-related deaths in Maine hit a record high of 378 in 2016, up from 272 in 2015. It was the state’s fifth straight year of increasing drug-related deaths. Most of the deaths resulted from opioid drugs, especially fentanyl and heroin.

The heroin crisis contributed to an overall increase in deaths in Maine in 2016, from 13,968 in 2015 to 14,459 last year, a jump of 3.5 percent, even as Maine’s population decreased slightly, Mills said.

Deaths reported to the Medical Examiner’s Office increased by 7.8 percent and cases in which the office took jurisdiction rose by 8.7 percent in 2016 over the year before, according to numbers provided by the Attorney General’s Office. That meant more work for the three pathologists who contract with the examiner’s office, Mills said.

She said the state will be increasing its compensation rate for pathologists from $750 per autopsy to $1,000 per autopsy because of the increased workload. That accounts for $69,000 of the $230,000 budget increase she’s seeking for next year, Mills said.

Even with that increase, she said, Maine’s compensation rate for autopsies lags behind the national average. A private autopsy can run from $2,000 to $5,000, state officials said.

Mills said other factors are also driving the medical examiner’s budget up from the current year’s figure of $1.94 million.

The lion’s share of the increase she’s seeking is $150,000 more for toxicology reports, Mills said. The office already received a $150,000 increase for those tests for the current budget year, which closes at the end of June, in the state’s supplemental budget, and she’s seeking to maintain that funding next year. The supplemental budget also included more funding for opioid treatment.

The blood work involved in overdose deaths is often complicated, she said, as officials try to identify the exact drug responsible.

“Sometimes it’s drugs we don’t know about,” Mills said, or a variant of a drug with some different ingredients added.

Mills said those toxicology reports are important because officials need to warn the public if there’s a particularly dangerous version of a drug circulating.

She said she’s also seeking an increase in funding of $11,000 for field examinations, cases where the medical examiner is called to the scene of a death to assist in the investigation. Often that doesn’t lead to an autopsy, but the examiner’s office is needed on site to confirm that a death stemmed from natural causes.

 

Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

[email protected]