New Whatcom medical examiner tells Council that her office is substandard, understaffed

Whatcom County Medical Examiner’s Office/Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Whatcom County’s new medical examiner is seeking a sharp increase in funding, telling the County Council that her office is substandard and understaffed and that she is having to conduct many more death investigations and autopsies this year than was the previous practice.

In a presentation to the council’s Public Works and Health Committee, Dr. Allison Hunt said her predecessor failed to conduct thorough death investigations.

“A lot of cases were slipping through the cracks,” Hunt told the committee on Tuesday afternoon, Jan. 24.

Hunt’s company, Hunt Forensics, contracted with the county starting in January 2022 when Dr. Gary Goldfogel retired after more than three decades as medical examiner.

Hunt has been a medical examiner in Miami and Southern California. She received her medical training from the University of Louisville in Kentucky and completed a pathology residency and a forensic pathology fellowship before becoming a medical examiner, according to earlier reporting in The Bellingham Herald.

She was seeking an extra $893,449.13 for a total amount of $3,356,602 through December 2025, when Hunt Forensics’ contract expires, according to documents contained in the funding request.

That would allow Hunt to hire more full-time investigators and other staff so that the State Street office is open daily and around the clock, ready to respond to a death that legally demands an investigation, Hunt told the council committee.

“All of that requires somebody answering the phones, somebody finding out the history, somebody finding out medical history, the circumstances of death, going in to (the hospital) looking at medical records. Is this a case we’re going to have to bring into the office?” Hunt told the council.

“This office was terribly understaffed and terribly underfunded,” she said.

Further, Hunt told the council that the Medical Examiner’s Office should be a full county agency, as it is in many Washington counties, not a contract service as in Whatcom County.

Full county office

Six counties in Washington state, all with more than 250,000 in population, have a medical examiner system, and the rest have an elected coroner, Hunt said.

County Executive Satpal Sidhu told the council that he’d like to see the Medical Examiner’s Office become a full county agency.

“This is a transition process. It may take a couple of years. Our intention is to bring it into the county employ, like a lot of other places are,” Sidhu said.

It’s unusual for a county to have an independent medical examiner, Hunt said.

“I had to search for counties that contract out for medical examiner. Everywhere I’ve worked, I’ve always been part of the government,” she said.

“We’re an extreme outlier,” she said.

More investigations

Hunt said she investigated 742 deaths in 2022, and accepted jurisdiction in 491 of those through Dec. 9, 2022.

She said she conducted 150 full autopsies, 91 external exams and eight limited exams last year.

That’s far more death investigations than Goldfogel reported in 2021, according to the department’s annual report.

“During 2021, the Whatcom County Medical Examiner’s Office assumed jurisdiction in 168 death investigations that involved forensic autopsies, toxicological examinations, viewing and summary reporting. In addition, 280 other additional cases were reported and investigated and no jurisdiction was assumed,” the report said.

Council members voted 6-0-1, with Councilman Todd Donovan abstaining, to delay consideration of the extra funding during the full council meeting Tuesday night.

More death inquiries

Hunt said that her office is required to conduct an inquiry for a range of deaths, even if the cause and manner seem obvious to a layperson:

When someone in apparent good health dies suddenly and medical personnel aren’t present.

When the death was caused by unnatural or unlawful means, under suspicious circumstances or by any kind of violence, including deaths by drowning, hanging, burns, gunshot, stabbing, lightning, drugs, starvation and suffocation.

A violent contagious disease or public health hazard.

A death that occurs in a jail.

More deaths overall

In her presentation, Hunt told the council that overdose deaths are rising, led by fatal incidents linked to the opioid drug fentanyl.

Suicides rose from 37 in 2021 to 51 in 2022, along with homicides, which rose from three to 10 in the same period.

Many deaths were being recorded as natural, when the manner of death should have been called accidental, Hunt said.

She said that she found eight such cases in her first two weeks on the job.

“We have to go back and review all of these, and I think frankly a lot weren’t being reviewed,” she said.

In addition, tissue and organ donation wasn’t attempted in most deaths, Hunt said.

“We need full-time investigators, full-time autopsy (technicians and assistants) like yesterday,” Hunt told the council.

Other needs

In addition to more staff for investigation, autopsies and office tasks, Hunt said a more modern facility is required.

“Honestly, the building we have right now is just not going to cut it,”

More space is required, along with gated parking for staff, and secure and sheltered access for delivery of human remains.