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Editorial: Shorten autopsy delays

Uncertainty is a dangerous thing for a grieving mind, but for many people who lose a loved one unexpectedly, uncertainty is becoming more and more unavoidable. This is because the amount of time it takes the Massachusetts Chief Medical Examiner’s Office staff to perform autopsies has increased, with one Northampton woman waiting more than four months to learn the cause of her husband’s sudden and unattended death.

She eventually learned that his death was heart-related.

Diane Alexander said while she waited to hear about the cause of her husband James Nieskoski’s passing, doubt entered her mind.

Despite there being no evidence of foul play or suicide, Alexander said that the longer it took for the results to come back, the more she began to wonder if there was something more to her husband’s death than she initially thought.

Having to wait for a medically determined cause of death does more than confuse loved ones. It can hold back survivors’ life insurance payments or the ability to access bank accounts, among other impediments.

Little data is available on how many autopsies are performed by staff at the state Chief Medical Examiner’s Office. But Jay Czelusniak, president of the Western Massachusetts Funeral Directors Association and owner of Czelusniak Funeral Home in Northampton, said that 20 years ago three or four examiners were available seven days a week, as well as one part-time examiner, and that findings were reached more quickly.

He said budget cuts and reductions in hours for examiners have left the offices “kind of overwhelmed.”

Terrel Harris, a spokesman for the examiner’s office, said the problem isn’t budget cuts or a reduced staff. He maintained that delays are the result of more complex testing procedures.

Due to a lack of data, it’s hard to tell if waiting four months for an autopsy is unusual or standard. Unlike neighboring states, the Massachusetts medical examiner provides no estimated time for completion.

Perhaps the problem is cutbacks in the office and perhaps it’s improved techniques.

We don’t know, but we should. Four months is too long to wait to learn how someone died, especially when there is no foul play involved.

The operations of the Chief Medical Examiner’s Office should be made transparent and the examiners held accountable for timely results.

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