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Overdose cases overwhelm the medical examiner

The soaring number of drug overdoses is creating a huge backlog at the county morgue.

The delay in autopsies is intensifying the grief families are already experiencing.

According to the Medical Examiner, the office in Palm Beach County is so overwhelmed, criminal investigations are being delayed, toxicology tests are not being performed and families who lost loved ones are left waiting for answers.

Peggy Hernandez waited more than 3 months for the medical examiner to determine the cause of death for her son, Ty.

"I was scared it was from something I had given him," said Hernandez. "I would be so full of guilt."

Peggy gave Ty cold medicine the night before he died.

"Part of me as a mom wanted to believe it wasn't heroin,” added Hernandez.

Ty's mother isn't alone. She's heard from other families who've experienced similar wait times.

"It was a hard, 120 days waiting to find out,” said Hernandez. “At least I know, that is more than some people can say right now."

The state insists autopsies are to be done within 90 days.

It is just one of the rules the Palm Beach County Medical Examiner's Office is finding impossible to follow.

In part, because the M.E.’s office is dealing with a year that had a nearly 30 percent workload increase due to the spike in overdose deaths.

New and different drugs causing the overdoses are creating a backlog in toxicology testing.

"The problem is this, people don't just take one drug,” explained Medical Examiner Dr. Michael Bell. “We are having to measure 1,2,3,4,5,6 different drugs. We have to look at their concentrations. Did that drug have the ability to kill them or not?"

Dr. Bell added, “My biggest fear is because of this increased workload, we will lose our accreditation."

The state and the national associations of medical examiners say a pathologist should perform no more than 325 autopsies per year, anything more is asking for mistakes.

"We are pushing up against it and going past it," responded Bell.

Dr. Bell estimates each pathologist in his office handles about 500 cases per year.

It's nearly double the recommended work load.

Dr. Bell said because of the extra work load, his office is no longer performing toxicology tests for some violent deaths like fatal car crashes.

"Toxicology's are important,” said Hernandez. “It gives that last piece of puzzle that we need. It tells the final story."

Dr. Bell received additional funding this year. He says his office has made progress by hiring additional staff and putting the money towards toxicology testing.

But Dr. Bell fears his office will continue to face challenges, as the number of overdoses is continuing to rise. He anticipates the cost of the toxicology reports will drain the budget before the end of the year.

Dr. Bell will be joining our conversation Tuesday night at 7 p.m., as CBS 12 News will host a Your Voice Your Future Town Hall on the overdose epidemic. You can watch it online or on our sister station, My TV or Weather Nation.

(For more information on Ty's Guiding Light, send an email to tysguidinglight@gmail.com)

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