Opioids crisis: Medical Examiner loses key doctor as caseload keeps rising

Palm Beach County commissioners could be asked again this year to add more positions to help the Medical Examiner’s Office keep pace with a rising caseload driven by the opioid epidemic.

A new associate medical examiner and a new technician will start July 3, roughly three months after county commissioners approved the addition of those two positions.

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But the office recently lost a key position when one of its doctors left to take a job with the Broward County Medical Examiner’s Office. That means the new doctor that starts on July 3 will essentially replace the doctor who left, keeping the Palm Beach County’s Medical Examiner’s Office at five doctors instead of six.

“It will be some time before the newly added position will help reduce the examiner workload,’’ deputy county administrator Jon Van Arnam said Thursday in an email to commissioners.

“The number of new cases continues to increase at an unprecedented rate, stressing staff and the system. If this trend continues, it could necessitate us returning to the (County Commission) for additional positions later this year or early next year.’’

Dr. Michael Bell, Palm Beach County medical examiner.

To help reduce the possibility of losing more doctors, Van Arnam has suggested the county’s Medical Examiner, Dr. Michael Bell, conduct a salary and benefits survey.

“Pay and benefits are key factors in our ability to attract and retain qualified medical staff and investigators,’’ Van Arnam said in the email.

At the meeting in April about the opioid epidemic, county commissioners also approved a third position – an executive level drug czar – to oversee the county’s response to the drug crisis. That position could be filled later this year.

“This position is still being developed,’’ Van Arnam said.

“We are determining how to best (use) this position in coordination with key partners including the Health Care District, Southeast Florida Behavioral Health Network, Palm Beach County Fire Rescue and PBSO. We understand the urgency of this situation and will keep you informed of our progress.’’

Last year, the caseload for the Medical Examiner’s Office topped 2,000 for the first time.

“That’s a 60 percent increase in the last two years, which is almost exclusively due to these opioid overdoses,’’ Bell told county commissioners in April.

“It’s not like we’re getting more homicides. We’re not getting more heart attacks, more elder falls and head trauma. This is all due to opioid fatalities.”

MORE: Opioid overdose deaths double to nearly 600: ‘I don’t see any stop’

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