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Families waiting for answers longer from coroner offices that can’t fill essential position

Published: Apr. 21, 2022 at 8:12 PM EDT
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CLEVELAND, Ohio (WOIO) - Coroners and medical examiners across the state are being pushed to the brink as they continue to handle a record number of cases.

Many have been seeing more overdoses, suicides and Covid deaths over the last few years.

Some counties have been experiencing more homicides.

And behind each case is a family waiting for answers.

19 Investigates found some are waiting longer than usual if they need an autopsy.

Grieving families often look for answers from our last responders, coroners and medical examiners.

Stark County Coroner Dr. Ron Rusnak tells us they hit a record last year, handling 677 cases.

“Covid hit really hard and between that, the overdoses, the stress that you know, the whole community has had with the current situation that with which we live-- has really caused a significant increase in volume of decedents for us,” he said.

Most were natural deaths, but some bodies had to be sent to the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s Office for autopsies.

Dr. Ron Rusnak has been the coroner of Stark County for the past 16 months.
Dr. Ron Rusnak has been the coroner of Stark County for the past 16 months.(WOIO)

The Stark County Coroner’s Office isn’t performing autopsies in house because they haven’t had a forensic pathologist for nearly two years.

Right now they are working on ruling out accidents and homicides.

Otherwise some cases need a more thorough investigation.

“We’re not cutting corners, so those cases and again, those are the homicides, you know, the babies, the pediatrics, the young deaths, the industrial accidents where you know, we need a full investigation and those cases to make sure that if there’s a public health or a job safety issue or something like that, those are getting addressed,” Rusnak said.

But no local autopsies cost families time, peace of mind, and even money, as they wait for a loved one’s cause of death.

“We really need to wait to have the final report back, especially if that case is going to court or to you know, for life insurance purposes and things like that, for us to do the final ruling on that and that’s a significant delay because Cuyahoga County needs to make sure that they take care of their people first,” Rusnak said.

It’s taking up to six months to get those answers in Stark County, instead of one to two months if they could do autopsies in house with a forensic pathologist.

Even families whose loved ones died naturally could be missing out on vital information.

“Some people want to know why their loved one died. Was it from a heart attack or was it from a blood clot? Was there some genetic problem that caused this that the rest of their family members should be aware of where of? Maybe they’ll make lifestyle changes,” Rusnak said.

19 Investigates found in Ohio, only 10 of our 88 counties have a forensic pathologist.

They’re extensively trained physicians, investigating violent and sudden deaths.

They gather medical evidence like clues and are often key witnesses in the courtroom.

But a major shortage of forensic pathologists nationwide is now being called a crisis.

“You know, it’s a national problem, not just Stark County’s problem. And so there’s so much competition,” Rusnak said.

And part of that competition in finding one includes pay.

A check of job postings by the National Association of Medical Examiners shows salaries across the country are often between $200 and $300,000 a year.

Stark County was offering less than that, so to better compete, they just upped the position’s salary to $200,000, making it the highest paid position in the county.

The Stark County Coroner's Office has moved into a newly renovated building.
The Stark County Coroner's Office has moved into a newly renovated building.(WOIO)

Dr. Rusnak hopes a new office building they helped design helps attract candidates too.

But for now, the pathologist’s office sits empty.

We asked him how essential this position is.

“Yeah, it’s definitely needed. I mean it, you know a county can’t survive without it and that’s kind of why since we don’t have that, we have to send those cases out of county, because it’s a must have,” Rusnak said.

Once Stark County finds a forensic pathologist, they plan to help surrounding counties perform autopsies when they can to offset that position’s high salary.

This could ease some of the caseload going to Cuyahoga and Summit counties.

Sending cases out for autopsies is costing taxpayers as the position sits unfilled.

We found it costs $1,500 for each autopsy and transportation costs have gone up to about $200.

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