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Big backlog in death rulings ion SF

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POSTED November 24, 2013 8:19 p.m.

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A shortage of forensic pathologists at the San Francisco medical examiner’s office is leading to long delays in issuing death certificates that include a cause of death.

City records show that more than three-quarters of all pending cases — 609— have been awaiting a cause of death for more than three months, according to the San Francisco Chronicl.

An additional 389 cases have been pending for more than six months and 80 have been open more than a year, records say.

The delays can hamper criminal cases in which the cause of death is pivotal, and they make it difficult for families to settle a loved one’s affairs or access insurance and retirement funds.

Short staffing and slow turnaround times led the National Association of Medical Examiners to downgrade the San Francisco office’s accreditation this year from full to provisional. If it doesn’t demonstrate efforts to fix its problems, it could lose accreditation.

The association wants 90 percent of postmortem exams completed within two months.

The office doesn’t have enough forensic pathologists, who are in short supply nationwide. The office is supposed to have four pathologists to perform autopsies and determine a cause of death, but it currently only has one permanent and one temporary pathologist.

Chief Medical Examiner Amy Hart told the Chronicle that her office is working to improve staffing and turnaround times, adding that “it would be worse to rush cases that require additional analysis.”

City Administrator Naomi Kelly, who oversees the medical examiner’s office, said the city is “working aggressively” to hire pathologists.

“Clearly, I’m not satisfied with the deficiencies with the office,” she said.

Jim and Sandy Hague are still waiting to find out what happened to their son, Joshua, a 34-year-old machinist and Army veteran who was found dead in a sidewalk restroom in downtown San Francisco in January.

The delay prevented access to their son’s 401(k) account, which they needed to help pay back $7,000 in funeral expenses. But what the Hagues really want is information.

“We just don’t know what happened,” Jim Hague told the Chronicle. “His mother’s been depressed ever since. She’s been waiting every day, waiting for resolution one way or another. We’re just in limbo.”

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