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Medical examiner reports more than two decades of growth in two years due to pandemic

File photo
Medical examiners investigate unexpected deaths.

The chief medical examiner of Oklahoma says his office has been hurt by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Eric Pfeifer spoke to a state Senate appropriations subcommittee Wednesday.

“This practice usually grows at 11% per decade, and in the last two years we’ve grown 25%. That’s really hurting us,” said Pfeifer.

Pfeifer’s office didn’t respond to a request for clarification on details of the "growth," but said excess deaths in the state were costly for his office in the form of cremation fees.

“It’s an unfortunate thing for me to have to say a lot of excess Oklahomans have died this year and there have been a lot of fees as a result.”

Pfeifer is requesting about $19,160,000 for fiscal year 2023. Approximately $2.5 million will be allocated for staffing.

Salaries and duties of non-physician staff, especially investigators, were discussed with the subcommittee.

Republican Sen. Brent Howard noted the highest increase in salary requests is for investigators. He asked for clarification on whether or not investigators for the medical examiner are law enforcement.

“They’re not law enforcement but they work with law enforcement every single day,” said Pfeifer. “We must remain independent from influence by law enforcement.”

Pfeifer said investigators work and live in both metropolitan and rural areas, but they all require the same training. In rural areas investigators collect information from the scene of a death, then prepare the body for transport to Oklahoma City.

Howard asked if tribes use the medical examiner.

“We are still requested by tribes and other jurisdictions. We don’t charge anything. Back in the 80’s, I think a model like that was tried in the state and it was deemed unconstitutional,” said Pfeifer.

Pfeifer also touted a much anticipated Tulsa facility that will open in summer, resulting in six new tables for the medical examiner. Right now, he said, the office is operating with two.

Before joining Public Radio Tulsa, Elizabeth Caldwell was a freelance reporter and a teacher. She holds a master's from Hollins University. Her audio work has appeared at KCRW, CBC's The World This Weekend, and The Missouri Review. She is a south Florida native.