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Down a medical examiner, N.H. seeks outside help with autopsies

A photograph of the emergency sign of a hospital.

The state medical examiner’s office is asking for help to address a rising number of autopsies and other duties.

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At a time when deaths by drug overdose and COVID-19 are rising in New Hampshire, the state has been down a medical examiner for more than a year, straining the office’s ability to investigate a range of deaths.

A contract up for a vote by the Executive Council this week would pay a New York doctor $18,000 to help with autopsies and other tasks in the state’s medical examiner’s office.

Right now, the state’s two full-time medical examiners are performing more than 500 autopsies per year. According to Attorney General John Formella, whose office oversees the medical examiner, accreditation standards dictate that number should be no higher than 250 autopsies.

The sole-source contract would pay Dr. Terra Cederroth for five days of work completed last month and to be on call for four more days of work in New Hampshire next week, including on cases involving suspicious deaths.

“The investigative exigencies in such cases require prompt availability of qualified medical examiners to perform the autopsies,” Formella wrote in a letter asking the Executive Council to approve the help.

State records show that since July, New Hampshire has spent $62,000 hiring outside physicians to perform duties in the medical examiner office, including autopsies, toxicology work and preparing death certificates.

Drug overdose deaths have strained the state’s medical examiner for years. Rising suicide rates, the coronavirus pandemic, and a tight labor market has upped the burden.

A call to state Medical Examiner Dr. Jennie Duval was not immediately returned.