Answers slow to come as state changes death investigations

ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) – A massive increase in the number of toxicology tests sent to a state laboratory has created a backlog that has delayed death investigations for months.

Without the completed death certificate that marks the end of an investigation, the sometimes overwhelming array of menial tasks that accompany death has to wait.

So, too, do answers about how loved ones died.

It will take hundreds of thousands of dollars and months – at the earliest – to clear the backlog of cases that has slowed some death investigations to a virtual crawl.

Ed Chavez knows how that feels.

Death of a Son

“He and I were buddy-buddies,” Chavez told KRQE News 13 of his relationship with his son, Marty. “What else can I say?”

Chavez said his son was living with him in his Albuquerque home last February when the 38-year-old died.

Marty Chavez was recovering from hip surgery at the time. The elder Chavez remembers coming home from work and chatting with his son, who complained of sore lungs and flu-like symptoms.

“And I asked him if he wanted to go to the emergency room,” Ed Chavez said, “And he said: ‘No, I’m going to see what happens.’”

Chavez went upstairs for a quick nap. When he returned, his son was dead.

“I sit here and wonder, what did he die of? And I want to know,” Chavez said. But five months later, Chavez still did not have a death certificate.

Beyond the closure that a medically determined cause of death would provide, Chavez said his son had medical and other bills that need a death certificate before they can be cleared. There’s also an insurance policy, though Chavez said he doesn’t need the money he would be paid.

The Wait

The holdup for Marty Chavez’s death certificate was a toxicology report.

Because the cause of his death wasn’t apparent, the Office of the Medical Investigator – OMI – ordered a comprehensive toxicology workup from New Mexico’s Scientific Laboratory Division at the Department of Health.

A toxicology screening tests blood, urine or tissue for the presence of a host of drugs, both legal and illegal.

The two state agencies share a brand new building in Albuquerque, but have differing views of which is responsible for the delay.

“We take this very seriously,” David Mills told News 13. Mills runs the Scientific Laboratory Division that is the lone forensic toxicology lab for the state. “We know that there are people connected. There’s families associated with each sample.”

The Office of the Medical Investigator wouldn’t sit down with News 13 for an interview. A spokesman for OMI said the office views the problem as a vendor issue: if the laboratory can’t deliver timely toxicology reports, OMI can’t issue timely death certificates.

A Change

Until last year, the Scientific Laboratory Division was completing nearly all its toxicology tests within 60 days. But in 2013, its workload began to increase – because of OMI.

Since 2013, OMI has been sending every toxicology request to the Scientific Laboratory Division. Before that year, an out-of-state laboratory was contracted to do the work.

The change has doubled the total number of cases the lab handles. Comprehensive toxicology screenings – such as the one ordered for Marty Chavez’s death investigation – have increased more than tenfold.

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OMI Cases vs Backlog v2
OMI Cases vs Backlog v2

The Scientific Laboratory Division kept up with the workload even as the department pleaded with lawmakers to fund more positions. But after seven months, it became hopelessly backlogged.

The lab says it’s lost highly trained people to burnout. As the lab struggled to keep up, employees have endured periods of forced overtime and six-day workweeks for more than a month at a time.

Forensic toxicology reports are often used in court and, as such, the lab is careful to produce results that are reliable and can withstand the scrutiny inherent in the justice system. Each report is the result of two separate testing procedures and the findings are triple-reviewed.

Neither the lab nor OMI is willing to push for faster testing at the possible expense of accuracy.

Lobbying has paid off: seven positions have been added to lab staff. If all goes as planned, Mills hopes to have the backlog eliminated this fall.

Resolution

“Every time I come down here I keep thinking about him,” Ed Chavez said as he walked through the spare room where Marty died.

“It bothers me to look into that room where he passed away, because I can just see him lying there.”

The state’s toxicology lab received Marty’s sample on February 13, two days after he died. The lab said it finished his screening almost four months later, on June 10.

Chavez still doesn’t have a death certificate, though. That’s because OMI’s findings have to be passed from the funeral home to the state’s Bureau of Vital Statistics before he can be issued a certified copy of the document.

But after calling the funeral home, he was faxed a copy of his son’s report. He’s keeping it private, he said, but at least now he knows why he lost his son – his buddy.

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