The closing of the privately owned Permian Basin Forensic Center, which performed autopsies for 28 West Texas counties, could mean Ector County taxpayers shelling out more than $90,000 more for autopsies per year.
It could also mean longer waits for law enforcement agencies to get the results.
The center’s owner announced to area counties Tuesday that the center would no longer accept autopsies after noon Wednesday. Ector County now will have to send its bodies to Tarrant County for autopsies.
County Judge Susan Redford said the county paid $138,570 for autopsies in 2009, when it sent the autopsies out of town, and spent $57,760 transporting the bodies.
However, in the six months since October 2010, the county has spent just $45,736 for autopsies and $6,835 for transporting the bodies, she said.
Going back to the previous system will have consequences.
“It takes away from other services we can provide for the community,” Redford said. “This is something we have to do and we have to pay for it.”
Ector County sent 65 autopsies to the center out of 236 total since it opened in March 2010.
Neither Tommy Brown, who owns the center, nor anyone authorized to comment from the Southeast Texas Forensic Center returned messages left Thursday, leaving specific financial circumstances to a guess.
Redford said she estimates the center could take about $500,000 to run. With the $1,700 base charge per autopsy it is charging, the center could be short as much as $100,000 per year in covering operating expenses based on the 236 autopsies it performed in the year it was open. But that number is not including additional charges for extra services.
Not only is financial information incomplete for the operation of the center, but the length of time from which to make assumptions of its future viability was cut short, several officials said.
“I’m really shocked they made the decision, one, in the abrupt fashion and two, after only a year of having the doors open,” Redford said.
Manager of the center Carl Rogers said he has received an outpouring from counties in the area about how important the center was, saving money in transportation and even in cost of the autopsies.
Rogers also said he is proud of what the center was able to achieve: completing autopsies and getting reports back to agencies at an average of three weeks per case, when outside forensic pathology centers take anywhere from 12 weeks to 26 weeks to complete the same reports.
While there is no silver bullet to solve the problem, Redford said the counties that benefited from the center could band together to keep it.
Pecos County Judge Joe Shuster said the county paid $400 to $500 for transport to Odessa; it costs twice as much to send bodies to Tarrant and Lubbock counties, and the cost per autopsy is even up to $6,000 more expensive for the county.
Pecos County may be one of the potential partners for Ector County to keep the center open under new ownership, though, Shuster said, as he has expressed his interest to Redford.
Redford said she will be speaking with several other judges at the West Texas County Judges’ Conference next week about the options.
Despite her estimates, Redford said she is not sure what the economic impact would be to taxpayers if the county were to take control of the center.
But Rogers said distance and speed are important for law enforcement, funeral homes and families.
“The quicker the autopsy is done, the quicker the family can move on, and that’s the biggest benefit,” Rogers said.
Chief death investigator Shirley Standefer with the Medical Examiner’s Office said the proximity of the center also allowed her staff to observe autopsies and learn from the forensic pathologist.
Even if the center did not close, it would have had to operate without a forensic pathologist, as Dr. Ruth Kohlmeier informed the center she was leaving just a few weeks ago, Rogers said.
Kohlmeier was the second forensic pathologist in less than a year to leave the center following Dr. Elizabeth Miller’s departure in June. Kohlmeier started August 9.
Rogers said only about 500 forensic pathologists practice the profession in the nation, and the great competition for the doctors makes it difficult for any county to hold on to them for too long.
They generally move to the highest bidder, he said.
Odessa Police Department spokeswoman Sherrie Carruth said in an email that the loss of the center would significantly affect the time aspect of solving cases as well as the officers’ abilities to get direct feedback from the office just a couple blocks down.
District Attorney Bobby Bland said he never noticed any difference in time getting autopsies from Tarrant County instead of the center, but he was concerned about the cost.
Counties served by center