Delays in autopsy results create problem with grieving family’s insurance claim ::

Hanah Lopes

— A Johnston County father has been waiting nearly eight months for autopsy results to reveal what caused his son’s death.

5 On Your Side has learned that, in addition to not having those answers, the delays have caused a new problem for this grieving father.

We first told you about delays in the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner late last year. The time it takes to turn around an autopsy report can vary. In our experience, before the pandemic, some could come back in a matter of four to six weeks, but NCDHHS says a turnaround time of up to 6 months is not uncommon.

In November, Jud Patterson was told it could be up to six months for his son Reynold’s autopsy results to be completed, but nearly eight months later it still isn’t finished.

“Why is it taking so long,” Patterson said.

Reynolds Patterson died unexpectedly in August at the age of 36.

“They said, well, call us every two weeks and give us an update so that you don’t keep getting these letters,” Patterson said. “In addition to not knowing what happened to Reynolds, I’m also having to keep up with this.”

“Most of the time, when I call them to get an update, you know that the answer is always the same. It’s still pending,” Jud Patterson told 5 On Your Side.

He said when he asks the State Medical Examiner’s Office in Wake County for more information, he has trouble getting anyone to return his calls.

“I was assured that I would get a call back,” Patterson says. “But, I didn’t hear anything back.”

Then Patterson got a final request for information for the claim on Reynolds’ life insurance policy.

Patterson told us the request says, “If we do not hear from you within 30 days of the date of this letter, the unpaid proceeds may be placed in our unclaimed property account.”

The insurance company needs Reynolds’ cause and manner of death from the medical examiner, so Patterson reached out to the insurance company.

“They said, well, call us every two weeks and give us an update so that you don’t keep getting these letters,” Patterson said. “In addition to not knowing what happened to Reynolds, I’m also having to keep up with this.”

Autopsies are typically performed withing a few days of a person’s body arriving at an autopsy center, but a DHHS spokesperson says the time it takes to complete the remaining portions of the death investigation varies due to several factors.

A NCDHHS spokesperson told 5 On Your Side the N.C. Medical Examiner System was assigned 14,988 deaths to investigate in 2021. That’s up from 13,787 in 2020 and 11,809 in 2019. The spokesperson also said the number of personnel they have to complete those autopsies is shrinking.

It’s clear the wait has been a struggle for Patterson, but he says he knows he’s not alone.

“I’m sure that there are other families going through the same thing,” Patterson said.

NCDHHS sent us these statements about the delays in the NC Medical Examiner System:

“Each patient treated through the NC Medical Examiner System has a unique story and loved ones who are in search of answers regarding their passing. The NC Medical Examiner System is committed to performing thorough medicolegal death investigations in each case that comes through our system. Unfortunately, over the past two years we have seen a drastic increase in medical examiner cases and have faced a shrinking supply of medical examiner personnel to do this work at the state and local levels. Our Medical Examiner System, just like all other medical providers across the state, country, and world, has also been significantly impacted by COVID. These circumstances have significantly impacted our timeline for performing examinations and completing reports. During these difficult times, our staff remains committed to serving the citizens of North Carolina and work diligently to perform examinations and complete reports to support law enforcement in their investigations and provide answers to family members.

The North Carolina Medical Examiner System is made up of the Office of Chief Medical Examiner, 8 autopsy facilities across the state and local medical examiners. By statute, each county is required to have at least two appointed medical examiners. To date, there are approximately 340 appointed local medical examiners serving North Carolina. Local medical examiners are not NCDHHS employees or full time medical examiners they are most often medical physicians, but can also be nurses, nurse practitioners, physicians assistants or EMT paramedics (see § 130A-382). These individuals voluntarily devote their time, energy, and medical expertise to see that deaths of a suspicious, unusual or unnatural nature are adequately investigated. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we have continued to recruit and train local medical examiners, and 87 of our appointed medical examiners were somehow affected by COVID-19.

Seven of the eight autopsy facilities are also not NCDHHS facilities but are contracted facilities across the state. Those facilities and their catchment areas can be found on the OCME’s FAQ. These local partners are what make up the NC Medical Examiner System, along with the NCDHHS Office of the Chief Medical Examiner and help make this work possible. Because the NC Medical Examiner System is a network of medical doctors and allied health professionals throughout North Carolina, we continually recruit medical examiners, staff, and additional facility partners to support our mission.

The Families Inquiries Line is still the best way to contact the NC OCME for families of lost loved ones needing to contact case management. That number can be reached at 919-743-9000 and then press 3.

For general inquiries, individuals can call 919-743-9000 and consult our information and FAQs online as well. For media inquiries, please contact the NCDHHS Office of Communications by emailing [email protected] or calling us at (919) 855-4840.”

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