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Our own pathologist

Dec 2, 2013 - By Steven R. Peck

Autopsies as economic development? Stranger things have happened

After making hundreds of trips to an autopsy lab in Loveland, Colo., with a body in the back of a truck, the Fremont County coroner thinks a facility for performing autopsies could be successful here. He's probably right.

Coroner Ed McAuslan is suggesting the county try to attract a forensic pathologist so that autopsies in our area and around Wyoming could be handled in the state, at a centralized location, and for considerably less cost.

More and more autopsies are being performed than in years past. Sometimes they are needed for law enforcement purposes, particularly for fatalities in which alcohol or drugs are suspected as a factor in the death. Other cases might call for an autopsy to satisfy a state law that requires it in certain circumstances, even when foul play is not suspected. Sometimes an autopsy is ordered by an insurance company.

These autopsies ad up. In recent years Fremont County has sent as many as 75 bodies to Colorado for the procedure to determine a cause of death.

Usually that part of it only takes a couple of days, but toxicology reports needed to draw conclusions about drugs or alcohol contributing to a fatal car wreck, for example, take much longer. Anyone who reads this newspaper knows that the coroner's office has a stock response to questions about when a toxicology report will be available -- "six to eight weeks." If anyone ever made a movie about the coroner's office, "Six to Eight Weeks" could be the title.

Establishing an autopsy laboratory in Fremont County addresses more than matters of convenience, although such matters are significant. A clear need for such a facility is demonstrable across the state, where no certified autopsy laboratory exists. Everything goes out of state.

In laying out the idea to the Fremont County Commission, McAuslan gave details about how much all these autopsy trips to Colorado are costing the county's taxpayers each year. Try almost $100,000 on for size. And, given the trend of the past decade, that's a figure that is likely to rise steadily.

A lot of that money is spent on gasoline for the truck that transports the bodies to Colorado -- a much greater concern now that gasoline goes for more than three bucks a gallon. And the driver sitting in the truck for the 11-hour round trip doing nothing but steering is being paid too.

Most intriguing of all is the prospect that an autopsy center could become a revenue stream for the county. If Fremont County alone pours about $100,000 into autopsies in a year, imagine what other Wyoming counties are paying to the only such facility in the region -- and what that could mean to local revenues if that money were spent here instead,

Beyond that, a forensic pathologist is an educated, highly trained, well-paid person who would need several well-trained assistants as well. The lab would be a technical installation adding to the economic diversity and sophistication of our county. And if demand for the service encompassed several other counties, there might be enough work for a second pathologist and staff.

Autopsies as economic development? Stranger things have happened.

There could well be other benefits as well that haven't been fully explored. One that comes to mind immediately is possible cooperation with the new Central Wyoming College Health and Science Center. Or, if and when the county finally moves forward with the new Riverton justice center, the pathology lab could be incorporated there.

Lots of questions must be asked and answered as this proposal is examined. The commissioners have asked some of them already in talks with McAuslan. That information gathering process will be both crucial and interesting in the months ahead. Obstacles may crop up to discourage the development of a forensic pathology lab in Fremont County, but so far it has all the ingredients of an idea well worth pursuing.

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Fremont County Commission