Death certificates in limbo amid autopsy backlog in North Carolina

Hundreds of death certificates are in limbo as medical examiners across North Carolina work to clear an autopsy backlog.

A new report from the state Department of Health & Human Services says examiners are struggling to keep up with a growing caseload.

ABC11 first told you about one family impacted by this backlog. Shinnell Hunt waited for more than a year to get the autopsy of her two-year-old daughter Makayla Burt.

She tried to get it on her own for more than a year but finally turned to me for help. Shortly after we started asking questions, Hunt was emailed her daughter's autopsy.

According to the state, medical professionals performed 4,461 autopsies in 2018. The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME) in Raleigh handled 1,894 cases from January 1, 2018, to March 1, 2019.

Of those nearly two thousand cases, 525 remain "pending."

The family of former Durham County prosecutor Freda Black told me they are also frustrated with the long wait. Black died in July 2018 but her family says they waited months for answers and learned about the autopsy results when they saw the story on the news.

Family members say they are still waiting for a death certificate from the state.

The I-Team asked the state what was causing the delays.

A spokesperson said in a statement "Every death investigation conducted by the OCME has a unique set of facts and circumstances and the length of time required to complete an investigation can vary based on the complexity of the case and other factors. While it is not possible to anticipate the time required to complete the toxicology and/or autopsy report, the OCME is committed to serving the citizens of North Carolina by providing an accurate cause and manner of death determination in each case."

The medical examiner's office also says their caseload is increasing as the state's population grows and public health issues like the opioid epidemic are increasing the number of deaths.

Governor Roy Cooper's proposed budget includes a plan to add resources and staff to the OCME.
Copyright © 2019 WTVD-TV. All Rights Reserved.