Wisconsin lawmakers are responding to what they call a statewide concern for how accurately coroners are doing their job.
There is currently no statewide mandate for coroners or medical examiners to get death investigation training, and some say that's leading to many mistakes. For example, Monroe County man died after a fall in 2010 that family members considered suspicious, but a coroner allowed his body to be cremated before authorities ruled out foul play.
A proposed bill would require basic death investigation training for all coroners and medical examiners across the state. Though the measure was announced relatively recently, this conversation is not a new one. State lawmakers and the Wisconsin Coroners and Medical Examiners Association have been talking about requiring coroners to get death investigation training for about a decade, with both groups contributing to the legislation.
"If the person who's going to examine the body and pronounce the death doesn't have the requisite training, how can they properly do that job?” asked Barry Irmen, president of the WCMEA. “How will you keep from missing drug overdoses, suicides and potentially even homicides?"
At least one area coroner is concerned for the future of her office if the bill were to pass. Vernon County Coroner Janet Reed says she and all her deputy coroners hold part-time positions in the office, because that’s all the county needs, with an average of about 300 deaths per year. Most of those employees hold other full-time jobs, as well as their work with the coroner’s office. According to Reed, none are accredited with death investigation training.
"It's expensive to go to these classes, and having full-time positions elsewhere, it would just be really difficult,” Reed said.
To Reed, the bill to require more training could mean more money.
"There's a lot of talk of fees in there that are going to impact the county's budgetary means of covering this office,” she said.
As it’s written now, the bill does offer funding for offices to send their coroners to training, which helps to lessen some of Reed’s concerns for the future of her office. However, since nearly all of her deputy coroners hold full-time jobs, she’s worried that would make it difficult to find time to attend that training. State officials say they're still considering how best to provide access to training for small counties like Vernon.
"I certainly acknowledge that some counties with smaller population bases have a limited amount of coroners and medical examiners staff, and there's language in the bill which provides for outreach to those counties,” Irmen said.
One of the bill's co-authors, Democratic Rep. Amy Sue Vruwink, says the bill has bipartisan support but will still likely be tabled as a result of politics. Irmen is hoping otherwise.
"This is good for the state of Wisconsin, good for 72 counties, good for taxpayers," he said.
"This is about public safety. It's about accurately discovering criminal acts."
The bill is still in committee, and no vote has been scheduled as of yet.