For year Oklahoma taxpayers were promised more money would fix the problems at the Chief Medical Examiner's office. The office ended up losing national accreditation in 2009. A string of problems, scandals and allegations of corruption plagued the agency until finally the agency hired a Chief.
Dr. Eric Pfeifer took the position two years ago and promised changes. This past year the legislature agreed to again trust the agency with more funds on the promise of improvements.
"I think we've gotten rid of most of the drama. So we are able to concentrate on the processes and the systemic problems and the infrastructure to make our practice better," Dr. Pfeifer told Fox 25 during a tour of the facility.
Dr. Pfeifer's first accomplishment was eliminating the backlog of cases. He says turnaround time has improved to six months, but that's still about three months longer than the national average and not good enough for Dr. Pfeifer. "I'd like to see it at about a month."
To accomplish that goal the office has added pathologists. There were just five pathologists in the state when Dr. Pfeifer arrived. He just hired the eleventh pathologist which is the maximum his budget allows.
Ultimately Pfeifer says the office needs 15 pathologists to regain accreditation. "The nationally recommended workload is about 250 (cases) and I think we're still over that we're still about 350, maybe 400 per pathologist."
During a visit to Oklahoma in 2011 the president of the accrediting body, the National Association of Medical Examiners, said gaining accreditation back would likely be impossible without a new facility. Dr. Pfeifer showed us parts of the building that are rotting or falling apart.
In one room poor ventilation is causing the chlorine gas emitted by a machine to linger. The effect is the gas is destroying a machine that cost taxpayers more than $50,000.
Poor ventilation is also to blame for putting employees at risk. Dr. Pfeifer said during autopsies a potentially deadly gas was released (a by-product of suicide by poisoning) and inadequate ventilation caused the gas to spread throughout the building. Pathologists are working around that issue by performing autopsies on cases where the gas is suspected in the garage.
The increase in appropriations has allowed the agency to purchase update equipment. Just this year the office was able to replace a diagnostic machine that ran on Windows 3.1, a system that was more than 20 years old.
In addition a technology consolidation plan by the state has allowed the medical examiner's files to be digitized and stored on servers. It frees up space for offices and upgrades.
"We've converted one of the closets in which the boxes were into an evidence closet which we've never had before."
The legislature approved a move of the medical examiner's office to Edmond, but never appropriated the money for the money. The University of Central Oklahoma is planning to borrow money to build a new facility on its campus. That plan met resistance from some lawmakers, but it was recently approved during a legal challenge. Dr. Pfeifer hopes in a few years he'll be able to move into the new building and regain the accreditation that was lost.