Coroner questions autopsy policy

Scaling back could save $10,000 per year, Rob Ryg says

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By the numbers

$1,000: the cost for each autopsy

$10,000: estimate of how much the county could save each year by using a “common sense approach” to ordering autopsies on unattended deaths, according to Routt County Coroner Rob Ryg

25: approximate number of autopsies ordered by Routt County per year

$100 to $200: The cost of toxicology screens. These tests will be used even if an autopsy isn’t ordered. More extensive screens cost as much as $400.

— Under a mandate from the 14th Judicial District Attorney’s Office, any time a person dies alone, the Routt County coroner must perform an autopsy. Although autopsies are required by state law any time the cause of death is unknown, Coroner Rob Ryg said using a “common sense” approach would save the county about $10,000 per year.

During a Nov. 2 meeting with District Attorney Elizabeth Oldham and the Routt County Board of Commissioners, Ryg said that in many cases of an unattended death, an autopsy is not necessary.

When a person dies, the coroner uses evidence from the scene, reports from people in the area and information from the deceased’s doctor to figure out why and how the person died.

Under direction from a former district attorney, all unattended deaths, even those with clear causes, were required to have an autopsy. Oldham said her office does not require autopsies on all unattended deaths in Moffat and Grand counties, which also are within the judicial district. She said she was unsure why the policy was created but that she is willing to discuss the policy with Ryg and law enforcement representatives.

In the case of older people who are not in hospice care, the person’s doctor usually knows what medical conditions likely caused the person to die, Ryg said.

“Ninety-nine percent of the time they’ll say, ‘Yeah, we’ll sign that; we know what was contributing to that person’s death,’” Ryg said.

In other cases, Ryg said it’s often apparent how the person died, and the $1,000 autopsy is not needed.

In a fatal single-car crash, for example, Ryg said the autopsy wouldn’t reveal anything that the coroner and investigating officers did not already know or that could not be determined from a much cheaper toxicology screen. The autopsy results, for example, may state that the person died from blunt force trauma to the chest. It is up to the investigators to find where and why the car went off the road.

Ryg said even if the policy changes, autopsies still will be performed in all multiple-car wrecks that cause fatalities and that the $100 to $200 toxicology screens will be used in all fatal accidents to determine whether drugs, alcohol or other factors were involved.

In the case of gunshot wounds to the head, it’s the investigators and coroner who determine whether it is a suicide or homicide based on evidence at the scene and interviews.

Steamboat Springs police Capt. Joel Rae cautioned that autopsies are an important tool in investigations.

“There are pieces of evidence that can be uncovered in an autopsy that either support or conflict with the investigation, and to me, that is huge when we want to confirm the causes of death, no matter what those circumstances are,” he said.

Rae said he could not think of a time when an autopsy would not be beneficial to the investigation.

“Why not dot those I’s and cross those T’s?” he said. 

Ryg agreed that it could be a useful tool and that he did not want to forgo any autopsy that could be helpful just to save money.

“Obviously, we don’t want to do something that’s not thorough,” he said. “We want to do it right, and yet sometimes common sense comes into play.”

Ryg said a meeting hasn’t been scheduled with Oldham and law enforcement officers.

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