All Cerro Gordo County autopsies will now be done by state medical examiners in Ankeny rather than by pathologists in Mason City, a move that will cost the county an estimated $100,000 more per year.
The County Board of Supervisors approved the change at its weekly meeting on Tuesday.
The county had been paying Pathologist Associates of Mason City to do autopsies.
However, that group doesn't have enough pathologists on staff to do autopsies, according to Tom Meyer, director of administrative services for the county.
The State Medical Examiner's Office charges $1,800 per autopsy, $300 more than the fee charged by the Mason City pathologists.
Paying funeral homes in the county to transport the deceased to Ankeny for autopsies will cost $530 per trip, which is a brand-new expense, Meyer said.
The county has around 130 deaths per year where an autopsy is needed, according to Meyer.
Cerro Gordo County Sheriff Kevin Pals said in cases where it was obvious the death was the result of a criminal act, the bodies already were being sent to the state for the autopsy rather than being done locally.
However, there are also many cases where the cause of death isn't immediately apparent – such as when someone dies at home while alone – when an autopsy is necessary even if foul play isn't suspected, Meyer said.
"This is going to be a substantial added cost for the county," said Supervisor Tim Latham.
Counties are required by law to pay for autopsies, according to Supervisor Casey Callanan.
"It's our responsibility," he said. "We don't really have a choice."
Cerro Gordo isn't the only county in Iowa needing to transport the deceased for autopsies, according to Callanan.
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If anything, the county has been fortunate to be able to have autopsies done locally for so long, he said.
Meyer said the change might now be permanent as Pathology Associates hopes to add more staff by the end of next year, which would allow them do to autopsies again.
Every county in Iowa is required to have its own medical examiner, whether autopsies are done locally or not.
Cerro Gordo County will continue to appoint staff from Pathology Associates of Mason City to fill that role.
On Tuesday the supervisors appointed Dr. Angela Konrad to succeed Dr. Steven Goetz as medical examiner.
They also approved the appointment of Frank Stearns, a retired lieutenant with the Mason City Police Department, to serve as the medical examiner investigator, a new position for the county.
His job will be to help the county medical examiner determine if an autopsy needs to be done.
After arriving at the scene of a death, Stearns will call Konrad or another Mason City pathologist to report his findings, with the pathologist making the final decision on whether an autopsy is needed, according to Meyer.
He said the pathologist also may need to go to the scene in some cases.
Stearns will only be paid if he goes to a death scene. He will receive $175 per call.
Meyer said Stearns might be at one scene for several hours, and he will have to do paperwork afterwards.
Stearns has years of investigative experience, according to Meyer.
"We are lucky to find someone as qualified as he is," he said.