La Plata County recently contracted with a new forensic pathologist who will perform autopsies locally, so bodies no longer must be transported to Montrose.
Dr. Michael Arnall began work for the county Aug. 1 and has similar contracts with others in the region, including Archuleta, Dolores, Montezuma and San Juan counties.
“It’s not only a convenience for ourselves, but it saves the county some money and allows local medical students to view autopsies,” County Coroner Jann Smith said. “Local law enforcement can view autopsies as well. They weren’t always able to go to Montrose before, and it’s especially helpful if they’re involved in the case.”
The U.S. is home to fewer than 500 forensic pathologists, and remote regions such as Southwest Colorado that have a low volume of cases fail to attract young forensic pathologists who need full-time work.
Colorado is among about 10 states that abides by the coroner system, as opposed to a medical examiner system. This means that a medical degree is not mandatory for Colorado coroners, yet a medical professional is required to perform autopsies.
Smith replaced former county coroner Dr. Carol Huser, a licensed forensic pathologist, when she retired in 2012. Because Smith does not have a medical degree, the county enlisted forensic pathologist Dr. Rob Kurtzman to perform autopsies.
Late last year, Dr. Michael Benziger stepped in when Kurtzman took a job in Montana. Benziger is based in Montrose, which meant about 200 miles of travel round-trip and the associated costs for each autopsy.
La Plata County averages about 55 autopsies each year.
The county estimates the annual cost for Arnall’s services will be $139,624 next year, including staff time, his compensation, supplies and facilities, compared with $151,648 if autopsies are continued in Montrose.
“To have someone full time, it takes someone retiring,” Smith said.
Arnall has performed autopsies for more than 30 years and provided forensic pathology services as backup off and on for years for the county under Huser. He is based in Brighton but is making plans to move to the area.
“Durango is not quite big enough to support a young pathologist,” said Arnall, 61. “They needed someone like myself who wanted to be half-retired.”