A forensic pathologist out of Montrose has been appointed to perform autopsies for La Plata County and several other counties in Southwest Colorado.
Dr. Michael Benziger, a medical practitioner with Montrose Memorial Hospital, began working with several regional counties including La Plata, Archuleta, Montezuma and San Juan this month after Dr. Rob Kurtzman took a new job in Montana. Since 2012, Kurtzman performed autopsies for 10 Colorado counties and the Southern Ute Indian Tribe.
One postmortem examiner replacing another doesn’t sound like news, except counties will spend more time transporting bodies to and from Montrose.
La Plata County has performed 54 autopsies so far this year. By comparison, the county did 39 last year, 56 in 2013, 61 in 2012 and 50 in 2011.
While Kurtzman made weekly trips from Grand Junction, local counties are now transporting bodies to Montrose per their arrangements with Benziger. La Plata County Coroner Jann Smith said she visited Montrose twice last week, which is a 107-mile excursion each way but shorter than other options county officials were considering to Albuquerque and Colorado Springs.
“We’re still kind of working on it,” Smith said. “When Dr. Kurtzman was coming down, we and Archuleta, Montezuma and San Juan counties did autopsies on Wednesdays. Now I’m trying to figure out how we do this if we’re going up once a week or twice a week. I only have the capability of taking two (bodies) unless I take a second vehicle. Right now, we’re playing it by ear.”
In the past, La Plata County traveled to Grand Junction only in instances of homicides or other cases too urgent to wait for Kurtzman’s weekly visit.
It’s a 2½-hour drive to Montrose. Factoring in the return drive and time spent in the town, Smith said the round-trip is about seven hours, which is time away from her post.
“It takes the coroner out of the county,” Smith said.
If she has to travel for a case, Chief Deputy Coroner Larry Phelps covers for her.
La Plata County and neighboring counties said they are budgeting between $1,100 and $1,500 per case for Benziger’s services, depending on the length of the trip. Factoring in Benziger’s fee, fuel, a driver if Smith does not go herself, and if the case requires additional toxicology services, the average total cost per case for La Plata County will be about $1,500.
Despite the new arrangements, the 2016 proposed coroner budget does not reflect an increase of more than a few thousand dollars for transportation. This year’s budget is about $221,000, including salaries.
“It was costing us for (Kurtzman) to come down – a hotel, his fee and toxicology,” Smith said. “The amount of money spent is approximately the same; the only difference is we’re going there.”
Similar to when working with Kurtzman, Smith anticipates the possibility of some families experiencing delays, but they should be rare.
La Plata County does not have a designated facility for postmortem examinations; so, it has a contract with Hood Mortuary for Kurtzman’s visits. Now that the county is making trips to Montrose, Smith expects to be using the mortuary less. The contract lasts through the end of the year. Asked if that cost would be written out of the 2016 budget, Smith said, “We haven’t gotten that far yet.”
Archuleta County Coroner Dan Keuning said his office is coordinating with La Plata County on transportation costs and sharing vehicles. Archuleta averages 15-20 cases yearly.
“I would say the biggest challenge is in a small county like Archuleta, it comes in waves,” Keuning said. “You can go weeks without a case, then have two or three in a week.”
George Deavers, Montezuma County coroner, said a pathologist based in Cortez handles routine examinations, so the county will have to transport bodies to Montrose only in “suspicious or criminal cases.”
Seven states function on a medical examiner system, which means only a medical professional is authorized to determine cause of death. But Colorado is among about 10 states that elect coroners, who make that determination and decide if the case warrants an autopsy. Under this system, a medical degree is not mandatory for coroners, and in Colorado’s system someone who does hold a medical degree must conduct autopsies.
A coroner without a medical degree means traveling to find a forensic pathologist in the region when an autopsy is necessary – or waiting for the forensic pathologist to come to them. But hiring a full-time forensic pathologist for counties like La Plata, which calls for relatively few postmortem examinations per year, would not make financial sense.
Moreover, a forensic pathologist is hard to find. It can be an underpaid, unpopular career choice. There are about 500 people holding this designation in the United States, but that is estimated to be only half the number needed.
Benziger was out of town and unavailable for comment last week when contacted by The Durango Herald.