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Effort to address critical shortage of forensic pathologists stalls

Before earning a grant to renovate its operations under one roof, the Skagit County Coroner's Office rented a makeshift morgue at a local hospital in Mount Vernon.
Parker Miles Blohm
Before earning a grant to renovate its operations under one roof, the Skagit County Coroner's Office rented a makeshift morgue at a local hospital in Mount Vernon.

The latest effort to address a critical shortage of forensic pathologists in Washington has hit a snag in the Legislature.

Senate Bill 5776 would have, among other things, created a state violence and death investigation resource center. Plans for the center, led by a forensic pathologist, included developing best practices for death investigations statewide. It also would have surveyed medical examiners and coroners to identify needs in their offices and ways to fill them, and submit annual reports to the Legislature on trends in violence and deaths to help improve death investigations across the state.

More immediately, though, it would have required a study on the shortage of forensic pathologists — conducted by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy — to provide recommendations by the end of this year to begin fixing the problem.

The bill earned a do-pass recommendation from the Senate Law and Justice Committee, but failed to move out of the Ways and Means Committee before Monday’s mid-session deadline. Supporters are exploring other ways to salvage the study portion of the bill.

Timothy Grisham, deputy director of the Washington Association of County Officials, says one way that could happen is through a budget proviso, since the study on its own is relatively inexpensive. Bottom line, Grisham says, is that the system has reached a critical point — and it’s at risk of getting worse.

“We have several counties in Eastern Washington who are having to transport bodies to Snohomish County or King County or Pierce County for the autopsies and then transport them back,” Grisham said, adding that if just one of the few forensic pathologists retires, it could have devastating effects on the system.

James Paribello is a lobbyist for the King County Medical Society, the organization lobbying for a uniform, statewide death investigation system. He said the bill that stalled in the Legislature was the critical next piece of the puzzle.

“We’re at a point where autopsies may not be occurring in a timely fashion, or performed locally, all because of a shortage,” Paribello said in an email to KNKX. “Hopefully that study will provide the documented evidence, as well as the potential solutions, needed for our Legislature to seriously address this crisis. Doing nothing means that we as a state will have to accept that death investigations may be inadequate, or not performed at all, which would imperil our criminal justice system, impede racial equity efforts, and potentially harm public health.”

Right now, only a handful of forensic pathologists are crisscrossing the state to perform autopsies in a bulk of Washington's counties. That’s because death investigations in 33 of 39 counties are led by elected coroners, who outsource their autopsies to people trained and certified to perform them.

In-depth reporting from KNKX in 2020 revealed that the state’s system of death investigation is riddled with problems, including a lack of training and oversight and inadequate funding. You can read more and listen to the three-part series here.

Kari Plog is a former KNKX reporter who covered the people and systems in Pierce, Thurston and Kitsap counties, with an emphasis on police accountability.