Legislature Considers Changing Autopsies In Rural Alaska

When a person dies under suspicious or unusual circumstances, the state has an obligation to make sure that evidence is processed and that they can protect the victim and their family.

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In rural Alaska, that means sending the body to the medical examiners office in Anchorage. If the legislature acts on a bill, part of that examination could take place locally.

The state covers some of the costs, but family members often end up paying large sums to funeral homes to prepare the body and transport it. Bodies are sent to anchorage for autopsies. They often end up paying $500 so-called taxi fees to move the body between the Medical Examiner’s office and funeral homes. That’s added to the freight costs of shipping a casket back to a village. Bethel Representative Bob Herron is sponsoring legislation to make it easier on families when they have to navigate those choices in a time of grief.

“They’re making this decision under duress, because you want to start this grieving process right away. You wan to know why the family member died, and that takes time, but sometimes it’s needless. That’s what this is about, it’s about having a process that is fair,” said Herron.

Herron wants better explanation of the costs and options for taking care of a body so a family doesn’t end up paying for some service they don’t want. Testimony in Juneau from AVCP indicated that funeral homes were “holding bodies hostage” as families scrambled to find money for embalming or caskets.

“Reputable, or whatever you want to do, people in private business are holding a body until they get payment. It’s apparently a fact of life,” said Herron.

Another change would require the state to pay for embalming if required by regulation for transportation on air carriers. A next step would be finding a way to use the region’s telemedicine facilities to do autopsies or pre autopsies remotely.

“Where you can bring the body to Bethel, generally that’s what happens anyway, and they can put it in the morgue, and set up a time to visit with the medical examiner via teleconference. And the doctor or PA can take the camera and walk through it. After the first hearing, I’m real hopeful,” said Herron.

Herron is proposing a pilot project in the region, but there’s nothing in the bill to establish one. Another part of the bill would allow local officials to be able to issue death certificates in some cases instead of having it done in Anchorage. The house bill is currently in the Health and Social Services committee.

Ben Matheson is a contributor with the Alaska Public Radio Network.

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