Enhanced Coroner Training to Help Put Opioid Crisis into Remission

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. - It's been seven years since overnight flooding at the Albert Pike Campground killed 20 people.

The tragedy shined a spotlight on the need for improved coroner training and education in the state.

At a joint legislative committee meeting Wednesday at the Statehouse Convention Center, Arkansas lawmakers saw death investigation improvements have been made over the years, but much more work still needs to be done.

Another tragedy spilling across the country into the Natural State made that very clear.  

"People are dying every day from drug overdoses," said Dr. William Mason, the associate director for preparedness and science with the Arkansas Department of Health. "It kind of was a slow tsunami, and it's now here."

However, a new state law could help put the crisis into remission. 

"The coroner's bill is unique to Arkansas," Mason said. "It came at the right time."

The legislation established a fund to allow coroners to improve their training.

Dr. Mason told the legislative panel it's critical for coroners to learn how to accurately fill out a death certificate.

"It's one of the most important legal documents in existence," he said. 

However, Dr. Mason said nearly 20 percent of death certificates lack specific information on which drugs caused the overdoses, which makes it difficult from the local to national level to monitor who's falling victim and why. 

"We must have accurate information about drug overdoses on death certificates as we fight this epidemic, which in a sense, should be considered a threat to our national security," Mason said. 

According to the Arkansas Law Enforcement Training Academy, the state now has 53 certified medical legal death investigators. Fifty coroners and deputy coroners are also certified in aquatic death and homicide investigations and 49 in crime scene photography. Nearly every county has an infant death investigator.

"You guys are the ones who have made this possible to bring death investigation to the forefront in the state of Arkansas more than it has ever been," Kevin Cleghorn, the Saline County coroner and president of the Arkansas Coroners Association, told the panel. "We could not do this without you guys. You are our champions. We still have a long way to go." 

The Arkansas Coroners Association is working on bringing more specialized training to the state, including fire death investigation and even its first coroners symposium that will focus on the opioid epidemic.

"For don't we all wish to live long and prosper," said Mason.  

Coroners also brought up another issue at Wednesday's joint legislative meeting: unclaimed bodies.

"Families do not want their loved ones," said Gerone Hobbs, the Pulaski County coroner. "Is it a crisis? It can be."

Hobbs told lawmakers he's had to cremate four people this year because their families never claimed them. Every cremation costs about $200 so he's already hit his annual budget of $800. 

Hobbs said there are currently 19 additional bodies in his morgue that have yet to be cremated while they wait for families to claim them.

Fox 16 Investigates's Marci Manley brought this issue to light several years ago, profiling Hobbs and how bodies were piling up in his morgue. 

From what Hobbs told lawmakers Wednesday, it sounds like the problem has only gotten worse. 

"Our office has seen an increase of people not claiming their loves ones," he said. "And it just falls back on the county. The standing law is very unclear. It's very vague." 

"At this point, our solutions are allergic to the problem," said Mark Whitmore, the chief counsel for the Association of Arkansas Counties. "The families, while they may have a moral obligation, there's not a legal obligation." 

Lawmakers agreed this will be a focus of the 2019 legislative session. 

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