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New pathologist resigns

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Posted: Sunday, June 20, 2010 12:00 am

The new Permian Basin Forensic Center in Odessa has been open for business only three months but already has had to find a new forensic pathologist to conduct autopsies.

Dr. Elizabeth J. Miller last week returned to her home and family in the Lubbock area where she intends to pursue “self-employment opportunities,” Carl Rogers, business manager of the Odessa forensic center, said Wednesday. Rogers described Miller’s departure as “unexpected.”

Hired to replace Miller was Dr. Ruth E. Kohlmeier, a board-certified pathologist. Kohlmeier, who is scheduled to begin work Aug. 9, comes to Odessa from the El Paso County Coroner’s Office in Colorado Springs, Colo. But she has several years of forensics experience under her belt in the Lone Star State, including a stint with the Travis County Medical Examiner’s Office.

Kohlmeier is a familiar face to several county officials. In 2008, she sought to persuade Ector County to begin conducting autopsies locally — instead of sending bodies hundreds of miles to Tarrant County — and pitched her proposal in a PowerPoint presentation to county commissioners. In light of increasing transportation costs, the county forged a temporary agreement with Midland County that ultimately fell through because it proved too costly. The expected salary of a forensic pathologist, for instance, nearly exceeded the county’s budget for autopsies at the time, officials said.

Kohlmeier said Wednesday she looks forward to moving to the Permian Basin.

“The area itself, although I’ve never lived there, is very attractive,” Kohlmeier said. “I have been looking at West Texas for a while, so I’m pretty excited about it coming to fruition.”

Dr. John A. Stash is conducting autopsies in Odessa on an interim basis, Rogers said.

Susan Jones, chief operating officer of the Permian Basin Forensic Center, said the company is “very excited” to have Kohlmeier on board. “We have been in contact with her for several months,” Jones said.

Miller, the departing pathologist, couldn’t be reached for comment.

Earlier this week, the Southeast Texas Forensic Center, the parent company of the Odessa autopsy center, announced plans to close one of its facilities in Conroe. A company attorney told The Courier of Montgomery County that the operation was no longer “economically desirable.” The company also has facilities in Tyler and Beaumont.

Company officials, however, stressed that the closing of the Conroe facility, which served eight counties in the Houston area, will not affect the Odessa operation.

“They’re two totally separate operations,” Jones said.

In fact, Permian Basin Forensic Center officials said business has been booming. Rogers said the company is conducting about two dozen autopsies a month. So far, 23 West Texas counties, including Ector County, have sent bodies to the Odessa facility for autopsy.

“We’ve been very pleased with the response,” Rogers said.

One disappointment for the company has been the lack of business from Midland County. For months leading up the opening of the local autopsy center, officials raved about the thousands of taxpayer dollars the county would save sending bodies to Odessa instead of Forth Worth.

But Midland County has not sent a single body to the Permian Basin Forensic Center, and just last month, the county renewed its autopsy transportation contract with Sanchez Mortician Services, which prefers to take bodies to Tarrant County.

“They had every intent to use the facility. They planned to use the facility,” Rogers said of Midland County. “We would like to have their business, there’s no question about that. But it’s not a make or break situation.”

Sanchez Mortician Services previously stood to make more money off the longer drive, but the new contract is a package deal that includes transportation to 65 autopsies a year — regardless of where they’re conducted — as well as unlimited body pickups and storage, Midland County purchasing agent Bob Henderson said.

At $180,000 a year just for transportation costs, Henderson said the county isn’t enjoying the savings it anticipated when it lobbied for the opening of a local autopsy center.

“The problem is we don’t have a morgue,” Henderson said. “Everybody says you’re paying too much for transportation, but it’s not apples and apples.”

The new contract states that bodies will still be sent to either Dallas or Fort Worth. Oscar O. Sanchez, owner of Sanchez Mortician Services, did not return a call for comment Wednesday.

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