Getting what we pay for

We’ve seen plenty of examples of cuts to our state’s core services in recent years, as well as chronic underfunding that is causing us to fall short of many of our common goals. One of the most dramatic examples is the plight of the state Medical Examiner’s office.

The Medical Examiner is responsible for investigating homicides, suicides, and other violent or suspicious deaths. They also investigate deaths from diseases which may pose a risk to public health. Recent reports have brought to light the extent of our failure to provide this important service and the real human costs.

The Medical Examiner’s Office lost its accreditation in 2009, after inspectors assigned it the lowest score a state agency has ever been given. Dr. Collie Trant, the Chief Medical Examiner at the time, cited a “chronic lack of funding and support for the agency.” He wrote, “The core of our problem is lack of money. A new, state of the art facility has been talked about for years. That is certainly a need, but the immediate crisis is people, training, space, and equipment. The immediate crisis cannot wait on a new building sometime in the future.”

Trant was fired in 2010, and subsequently filed a whistleblower lawsuit. He had been on the job for only 9 months, having replaced Dr. Jeffery Gofton, who resigned amid controversy over a proposal to send bodies from the Tulsa area to Oklahoma City for autopsies to save money.

After Trant, the job was offered to Dr. Phillip Keen, but that was rescinded when a background check revealed that Keen had carried a body for 100 miles in the back of his pick-up truck. The job was then offered to the interim Chief Medical Examiner, Dr. Andrew Sibley, but he turned it down. Dr. Shipley was later fired amid accusations of discrimination and harassment, which he is contesting.

The current chief, Dr. Eric Pfeifer, started in March 2011. The agency has recently begun sending bodies from the Tulsa area to Oklahoma City for autopsies due to a lack of pathologists.

This sad history might imply that the problem is corruption and mismanagement, rather than a lack of funds. Yet they stem from the same source – underfunding creates terrible working conditions, which make it much harder to attract and retain quality employees.

How bad is it? This Land Press recently described the deteriorating Oklahoma City offices:

The ceilings show splotches of yellow from water damage. The facility has 33 active leaks. When it rains, Elliott told me, the back half of the building’s lights flicker out. Autopsy reports, which should be sealed in a fireproof, locked area, are stuffed into rows of scuffed metal filing cabinets lining the hallway. … In the histology lab, where sample body tissues are tested, mold grows wildly under the sinks. Thin slices of brains and livers are stacked in thick, clear Petri dishes below a dripping water leak, a bucket propped in the ceiling above. The facility is 18,000 square feet; to meet accreditation standards, they’d need 45,000.

Allowing these problems to fester has serious consequences for Oklahomans. As the Tulsa World reported, the agency currently has a backlog of more than 800 death investigations, some more than a year old. While waiting on death certificates from the agency, surviving family members can be left without Social Security, life insurance, and veterans benefits. Criminal justice is impeded when overwhelmed pathologists become more likely to miss important evidence. Families dealing with a devastating tragedy are left in the dark about what happened to their loved one.

The situation is a disaster and a disgrace, as well as a clear example of how Oklahoma has failed to invest what is needed in crucial public services. More money may not solve all the agency’s woes, but it’s a necessary first step.


Gene Perry worked for OK Policy from 2011 to 2019. He is a native Oklahoman and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. He graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a B.A. in history and an M.A. in journalism.

2 thoughts on “Getting what we pay for

  1. I just can’t believe our Legislature has let this tragically “fester” for so long. Is there no Oklahoma pride? ME services are a fundamental government function that affects families going through grievous loss and often seeking justice and answers about why their loved ones died. And our Legislature doesn’t give a damn. They’re too busy handing out our tax dollars to profitable companies.

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