An increasing number of deaths in Southwest Colorado is causing trouble for the La Plata County Coroner’s Office: too many bodies and not enough space at the morgue.
“This is one of the challenges of growth, right here,” said Chuck Stevens, assistant La Plata County manager.
Since the early 2000s, the Coroner’s Office, which doesn’t have its own space to conduct postmortem examinations, has contracted with Hood Mortuary in Durango to use its facilities for autopsies.
While the county and Hood Mortuary have had a good working relationship, La Plata County Coroner Jann Smith said the recent uptick in cases has caused space issues between the county’s examinations and the mortuary’s work.
“Our numbers are increasing and their numbers are increasing, and if the numbers keep going up, we’re going to need to do something different,” Smith said. “There are months when our workload is just out of control.”
Some numbers to back it up: In 2013 and 2014, the county performed 56 and 39 autopsies, respectively. Last year, a total of 80 deaths required autopsy. And this year, too, is off to a fast start, Smith said. In January 2017, the Coroner’s Office conducted 10 autopsies. This January, the county performed 21.
An average autopsy takes up to an hour and a half, and costs around $1,800.
The county has had to more than double its budget for autopsies since 2014, from $7,100 to $15,000 this year, which includes the cost of room use, storage and supplies.
But the highest cost is for a hired pathologist (the county does not have its own pathologist). In 2014, the county budgeted $41,043 for forensic pathologist fees compared with $120,000 in 2018.
The uptick is attributed to a population increase that isn’t expected to slow down, which is causing La Plata County officials to explore ways to reduce both the space issues with Hood Mortuary and reduce the cost of service.
“We’ve got all options on the table,” Stevens said.
When someone dies, an autopsy is required if the death meets any of the 14 standards set by the state, which can include crimes of violence, unexplained infant mortality, workplace injury, drugs, suicides or any case the coroner deems appropriate.
In La Plata County, for instance, there were 153 deaths in 2017 that required the Coroner’s Office’s attention, yet only 80 required autopsies, which included 16 suicides by gunshot, nine alcohol/drug overdoses and nine motor-vehicle deaths.
The deceased bodies are then taken to Hood Mortuary for examination. Hood Mortuary owner Ryan Phelps did not return calls seeking comment.
Hood Mortuary has room for only 10 people, and the facility allows the county to perform examinations only twice a week to work with Hood’s daily business needs.
The county’s hired pathologist, Michael Arnell, makes a paid trip from Denver usually twice a week, Smith said.
If an autopsy needs to be performed more quickly, the county sends bodies to Montrose County for examination – a costly endeavor that requires staff time, travel expenses and bodies to be sent 107 miles over three mountain passes.
The county is brainstorming options, Stevens said, which could include adding storage space to reduce the cost of storing bodies at Hood Mortuary or a higher-cost solution of building its own morgue.
The problem is further exacerbated as Archuleta, Dolores, Montezuma and San Juan counties use Hood Mortuary’s facilities. Smith said San Juan and Dolores counties have only a few autopsy cases per year, but together, Archuleta and Montezuma counties equal the entire workload of La Plata County.
As the population increases in smaller, rural communities, space constraints are bound to happen, Stevens said.
“As the population in the county increases, everything associated is also increasing, including coroner-provided services,” he said. “We’re looking at how best to accomplish that in the most economical fashion.”