Is it time to change how coroners are picked in Colorado?

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Do you want your fellow citizens to elect the person who’s responsible for determining whether and how a family member was murdered, committed suicide, had an accident or died a natural death?

Question Two: Would a little jab from the trial lawyers help improve the system? Improbable as it sounds, a coroner says it might. We’ll get to that later.

icon_op_edLike it or not, almost all Colorado counties have elected coroners since statehood.

Sure, elect a legislator, a governor, even a president. All they do is tinker with policy, which can be and should be set by people from all sorts of backgrounds and skill sets and political philosophies.

But working on a patient — even a dead one — requires specific, extensive medical skills not often found in conjunction with the peculiar talent for soliciting votes. Nevertheless, until the last few years, all that was required of coroners was that they be at least 18, have a high school diploma or GED, be willing to be fingerprinted and not be a felon.

Only recently did the legislature get around to demanding some minimal continuing education, such as observing 10 death investigations and attending five autopsies.

Lawmakers also finally required that autopsies be performed by forensic pathologists after certain types of deaths. According to a list compiled by the Colorado Coroners Association, there are 15 such pathologists in the state. Only five are county coroners.

An article by Nancy Lofholm in the Jan. 19 Denver Post stirred the issue of coroner selection in Colorado. It noted that there are at least seven primary races for coroner in Colorado this year — a remarkable number. The job pays between $9.000 and $87,300, depending on the size of the county.

Standards vary widely for coroners around the country, as a PBS Frontline program noted three years ago. Some jurisdictions have hired fraudulent and/or incompetent pathologists who have “missed the bullet hole in the neck” or, conversely, sent innocent men to prison. In Louisiana, an obstetrician served as coroner.

State Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, sponsored an innocent enough measure in 2011, House Bill 1108, which would have created a “county coroner review commission.” It would have addressed specific issues such as coroners’ duties and responsibilities; whether they should be elected or appointed; whether there should be additional qualifications; and whether a medical examiner system would be more beneficial. All it could have done was make recommendations.

The bill was killed on party-line vote. Fields said the reason given was that during Bill Ritter’s administration there were too many “blue ribbon commissions” already. Of course, she was also a freshman Democrat in what was then a Republican-controlled body and maybe she was being taught a lesson.

Fields is working on a minor coroner bill this year. All it would do is move the system from the health department to the attorney general’s office, because the latter has more money available for professional development. But the AG may not want the coroners.

If the selection system were to be changed, it would require a popular vote, because the coroners are written into the state constitution. This might be the era to try a change, considering the popularity of “crime scene investigation” TV shows, and public awareness of the issues. (The pathologists I talked to were quite contemptuous of these shows, of course.)

One coroner recommending changes is Dr. Steve Ayers of Pitkin County. He is one of three appointed coroners (the others are in Denver and Weld counties). He is an emergency room physician, not a pathologist, whom he imports from Grand Junction.

Still, Ayers says he would prefer a medical examiner system, similar to the one in Oklahoma, where he previously practiced. It’s run entirely by pathologists, and autopsies are done in either Oklahoma City or Tulsa.

The quality of autopsies varies greatly around the country, he said, because there is no national standard of care, as there is for all other forms of medicine. The reason: “There’s no malpractice money to be made in it.”

That’s a statement that would aggravate most physicians. But Ayers explains that in bygone times, the standard of medical care varied greatly around the nation. You could get away with being “sloppy” in one part of the country but not in another. “Lawsuit after lawsuit after lawsuit threw that out the window.” Now the standard of care is the same everywhere.

He doesn’t know how to make a change in coroner competence, since “there are no lawsuits for dead people.”

Surely the trial lawyers can figure out how to solve that problem.

Longtime Rocky Mountain News political columnist Peter Blake now writes Thursdays for CompleteColorado.com. Contact him at pblake0705@comcast.net You may re-publish his work at no charge and without further permission; please give full credit to Peter Blake and www.CompleteColorado.com

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