Yavapai College - Newsletter 1

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The Verde Independent | Cottonwood, Arizona

home : latest news : latest news August 19, 2014

2/9/2013 2:53:00 PM
Mother: Death certificate delay 'absolute nightmare'
By Scott Orr
Contributing Reporter

PRESCOTT VALLEY - A dispute between a bereaved family and the Yavapai County Medical Examiner's Office has caught the attention of a former state senator who fought to help families that suffered losses but were unable to get closure.

Jessica Tolly died at her home on Dec. 20. Her unattended death was from natural causes - a defective artery in her heart caused a heart attack - but the family of the 28-year-old didn't know that.

In order to deal with a deceased person's finances and other affairs necessary to close out an estate, survivors need a death certificate.

But weeks passed before the Tolly family could get Jessica's.

"I feel violated by this county in a big way," Jessica's mother Janine said.

She said the delay was doubly frustrating because both she and Jessica volunteered their time helping the sheriff's office, working in the mobile command center during DUI saturation patrols.

"I feel this is an affront to me, after everything I've done for this community," she said.

Janine turned to now-retired state Sen. Linda Gray for help. In 2010, after hearing from a constituent with a similar problem, Gray sponsored legislation to require medical examiners to issue death certificates within 72 hours of the examination of a deceased person. The law allows the medical examiner to sign a certificate listing the cause of death as "pending" if the determination can't be made in time.

Addressing the county Board of Supervisors at its Jan. 7 meeting, Gray said, "I hope (the medical examiner's) answer is not 'We have not done an examination, therefore, we don't have a time limit.'"

Janine also spoke, asking for an investigation into the delay, which, she said, "caused further grief for our family."

The medical examiner's office told her an autopsy would be done on Dec. 26, Janine said, but then "they changed their plans and did not notify us." She said that when the family doctor and funeral home contacted the medical examier's office, they were told there would be no autopsy, but the office never called Jessica's parents to inform them.

Janine said the family paid a private pathologist, at a cost of $1,500, to do an autopsy on Jessica when they were told the county would not. That's how they learned about the defective artery.

Alan Vignernon, the county's human resources director, oversaw the medical examiner's office until the recent hiring of Mark Fischione, M.D., as chief medical examiner. He said the exam had been done, and in a timely fashion.

Vigneron said that the medical examiner's office had met its legal obligation - that the medical examiner had signed the death certificate within 72 hours after the exam.

But, he said, that signature alone doesn't make the document available to a family. "The issuance of a death certificate is (made after) a request from someone to the Vital Records Department, which is a separate part of the county," he said.

He said another problem prevented that office from issuing the death certificate: a delay caused by a software problem in a state-level computer system. "We had a problem with the state system ... that manages the death-certificate process," he said. "As soon as it was up, we printed the death certificate.

"It was not operating for about a week or 10 days," he added.

But Laura Oxley, spokesperson for the Arizona Department of Health Services, said she knew of no computer downtime.

"I don't think the state system was down," Oxley said. "I am pretty sure that's incorrect."

Gray, who was still in office when the situation unfolded, said she had asked an aide to check on that claim and was told, "it was down for maybe an hour, over the weekend."

The day after Janine and Gray spoke to the Board of Supervisors on Jan. 7, Vignernon said, the system returned to service and they were able to issue the death certificate.

Janine doesn't believe that's a coincidence. "Are you kidding?" she asked. "If (Gray) had not gone before the board, I'd probably still be waiting."

She said she asked the county to reimburse her for the cost to pay the private pathologist, but was turned down.

Gray said the intent of the law was to get families a death certificate, and following the letter of the law didn't meet the spirit of the law.

"If they signed it but failed to send it to the state's Vital Records, then they're in neglect of the law," she said. "To let it sit there for a few days, that wasn't the right thing to do."

Since she doesn't believe there was a computer problem, Gray places the blame "up here, because Vital Records in Phoenix was active and processing and getting it out."

Janine said her primary purpose was to keep other families from dealing with a situation she claims was not caused by a computer glitch, but by a lack of compassion.

"Emotionally and otherwise, it's hard enough losing a child, losing a family member, losing someone you love," she said. "You don't need this on top of it."

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Reader Comments

Posted: Wednesday, February 13, 2013
Article comment by: Kayla Smith

My brother passed away in August he died at his girlfriends house. They took his body to the M.E. office. It was on a Saturday that he died. not one family member identified his body that day. My parents were told they could identify the body on the following Monday and that no autopsy would happen til after. When they got to the office they told my parents that they already did an autopsy on him and that my parents would have to wait until the funeral home received his body.
At the time we didnt know the cause of death or get a death certificate until the last week of November.They kept telling us it would be another three to six weeks until we could even get a cause of death. When we finally got the cause of death and the toxicology report. His name was wrong on the papers and they called us and told us a completely different reason he died.

Posted: Wednesday, February 13, 2013
Article comment by: Ben Bueler

As a funeral director and owner of funeral homes, I can tell you that the state's computer system has never been down for more than a few hours at most(for maintenance only). Certainly it never has been down for "a week to ten days"- that was an outright lie. Our county has serious problems, they have raised the "cremation authorization fee" fro $10 to $20. They now charge $213 for transportation to the medical examiners office, this seems unfair because the families of the deceased have no choice in the matter. This was once a budgeted item but the county wants every office to be "self-sufficient". Tell me please how the Medical Examiners office generates revenue to become "self-sufficient". There are some necessary county services that should just come out of the general county fund. The propblem is not the employees at the Medical Examiners office (they are hard working, good people), its with the administrators they have to deal with.

Posted: Tuesday, February 12, 2013
Article comment by: Tom Babbitt

As a multi-generational Arizonan, I apologize. Our leaders care only about stopping drugs and spreading religion. Your suffering is our fault.

Posted: Monday, February 11, 2013
Article comment by: Malcolm Wilkinson

Our son Casey died in December (http://tinyurl.com/azqm9rb)
and we still have not received a death certificate from the Medical Examiner.The cause of death was confirmed at the hospital, there has been no autopsy, no investigation, no toxicology delay, as Casey was an organ donor (http://tinyurl.com/b2k5rdd).
We have been told in our many calls to the office that the paperwork is on the ME's desk, but it takes 90-120 days to finish the death certificate. I understand the policy and practice is the same at the ME's office in Maricopa County. Our insurance company is based in another state, but their people say they have never delt with such delays that occur routinely in Arizona.
The only way to avoid the delays of the ME's office is to have your loved one's doctor, if they will, complete the death certificate. Unfortunately, too many doctors are worried about liability risks to do so. Which means you will need to wait 90-120 days.

Posted: Sunday, February 10, 2013
Article comment by: Kenny Mollohan

Employees who screw up are disciplined, why is this different. These people work for us and should be held accountable for their actions or lack of action (especially lying about the computer issue).

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Yavapai College - Newsletter 3

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