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Counties burdened by cost of state-mandated autopsies

November 28, 2018 06:14 PM

Trooper Jeremy VanNostrand's body was moved from Albany Medical Center to Ellis Hospital after he passed away. While both hospitals can perform autopsies, it got us wondering if a recent rate hike by Albany Medical Center for this service was the reason.

NewsChannel 13 did some investigating. We learned Albany Medical Center raised its autopsy rate more than 100 percent as of December 1. The hospital has been losing money on these services for years. Now, counties are in a bind. Their budgets were already in when the rate hike hit. Turns out in New York, morgues and mandates are linked.

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"It was an alarming reaction of, ‘Oh my gosh. How are we going to pay for this? Oh my gosh, where will we bring these bodies,’" said Stephen Acquario, the executive director of the New York State Association of Counties.

His members are worried about paying for a huge rate hike for autopsies.

Through October, Albany Medical Center -- the biggest local provider of autopsy services –- able to handle up to 22 bodies, charged $928 for that service -- and that included toxicology testing. Since their toxicologist retires November 30, they're no longer offering that service. It'll be a separate charge of $500 or so to counties.

In a statement, Albany Med says:                        

"As the region's only academic medical center, Albany Med provides our communities with unique expertise and services in numerous clinical areas. The morgue is a facility on the Albany Med campus that performs autopsies on behalf of coroners throughout the region. Historically, Albany Med has provided service for a reasonable fee to the counties, but well below our costs. As part of our budgeting for 2019, we raised the fee for autopsy services to create better alignment with our costs."

While it's bitter medicine for counties to swallow, Acquario says they don't fault the medical center.

"They really have been undercharging and providing what I consider to be a community service. But, the problem is the local taxpayers cannot afford a 150 percent increase. When the state of New York mandates these programs, the state of New York should have some skin in the game," said Acquario.

New York State mandates when most autopsies that are performed. An autopsy must be performed when a death happens in a jail or prison, by suicide, homicide or other criminal activity and overdose. With the opioid crisis, the number of overdose deaths has skyrocketed.

Even though New York mandates these autopsies, it doesn't pay a penny. Instead, the county where the death occurred does.

The state did pay a portion of the cost until 2011 when, as the state recovered from the national economic downturn, it looked for ways to cut costs. So, counties were saddled with another unfunded state mandate.

"We have a property tax cap in this state. We're not in any capacity to be taking on additional state mandates. We believe the state should help in the short-term and also provide funding for a study for the long-term," said Acquario.

Counties have until Friday to respond to Albany Medical Center about continuing their partnership at the new rate.

This is what Albany County says:

"At the moment, Albany County is continuing its partnership with Albany Medical Center for morgue services, but is exploring other options in order to address the rising costs affecting counties across the state."

The state Health Department says:

"The Department is aware of NYSAC's request for additional funding and is taking it into consideration as part of ongoing budget discussions. In the meantime, we'll continue work closely with counties in support of all programs to combat the serious public health concerns raised by the opioid epidemic."

As for Trooper VanNostrand's autopsy, Albany Medical Center says their pathologist is out of town and it is routine to rely on Ellis Hospital in that situation.

Trust NewsChannel 13 to continue following this situation, because the long-term issue of providing this service still has to be settled.

Credits

Benita Zahn

Copyright 2018 WNYT-TV LLC, a Hubbard Broadcasting Company. All rights reserved

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