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CRYPT, IMPROVEMENTS APPROVED SUPERVISORS ACT ON CONCERN ABOUT CORONER'S OFFICE.

Byline: TROY ANDERSON Staff Writer

Amid growing concerns at the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office, the Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to spend $32 million to add a new crypt to provide more space and make other improvements to avoid a potential outbreak of communicable airborne diseases among employees.

The funding will be used to build a 4,000-square-foot crypt and reconfigure existing buildings to separate hazardous areas and provide more space for autopsies.

The vote comes as supervisors have expressed criticism over management problems at the office, which saw its case backlog surge dramatically this summer, leading to autopsy delays and decomposition of bodies that, coroner's officials said, could compromise trial evidence.

``I don't think they have a good implementation plan, and we're very concerned,'' Supervisor Gloria Molina said. ``We're watching them very closely.''

The unusually high caseloads overwhelmed the Coroner's Office and lasted an unprecedented six weeks. Typically, spikes in cases last two to three weeks and occur at the beginning of summer, the start of holidays and in January, Department of Coroner Director Anthony Hernandez said.

At the height of the problem in July, the highest number of bodies requiring examinations or autopsies in one day rose to 142.

``This was a very unusual spike,'' Hernandez said. ``We typically handle spikes in about a two-week period of time, but in this particular case, we had gone six weeks getting beat up by this particular spike and that alarmed us.''

The number of cases requiring immediate attention had dropped to 97 on Tuesday, Hernandez said. He told the supervisors that he was unaware of any cases where a homicide or accidental death investigation had been compromised as a result of the delays and resulting decomposition of bodies.

``I think the appropriate word here is that there is a potential,'' Hernandez said. ``The longer these types of spikes go on, there is always that potential.''

The increase in cases follows complaints by coroner's employees earlier this year that some bodies were infested with maggots and that workers had been double- and triple-stacking bodies for years because of inadequate space.

In response, the supervisors asked for a report on whether the construction of a new crypt could reduce overcrowding and improve the handling of bodies. In June, the supervisors gave the coroner $645,000 to hire more investigators and support staff and provide funding for three crematory service contracts to reduce a cremation backlog.

But to address the long-term problem, Chief Medical Examiner Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran said his office needs another $3 million to hire enough workers to staff a second shift.

``This would give us a buffer during fluctuations in our caseload,'' Sathyavagiswaran said. ``We are very concerned and thought you should know about this situation. We hope this is something we can consider when the finances are available.''

But Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich said he doesn't believe the coroner needs more workers.

``This is a management problem, not a resource problem,'' Antonovich said. ``They told us it's going to take six months to hire the new employees but they could reduce it to three months. It seems like an apathetic attitude to take when a good manager would implement the necessary changes as rapidly as possible. They appear too lackadaisical.''

Nevertheless, the supervisors directed the Chief Administrative Office to prepare a report on whether the coroner needs more employees to staff a second shift.

Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke said she has directed Hernandez to look into another problem in his office related to a recent incident in which paramedics transported a person from their home to a hospital.

After the individual died, the body was taken to the Coroner's Office, but coroner's employees were unable to locate the individual's next of kin because they couldn't get the paramedic records from the hospital.

The family, who was in another state, was never notified, she said. Months later, they found out the body had been cremated as unidentifiable.

troy.anderson(at)dailynews.com

(213) 974-8985
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Aug 16, 2006
Words:664
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