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Commish kibosh pathology lab for coroner’s office in crunch

by RALPH BARTHOLDT
Staff Writer | May 13, 2020 1:00 AM

Kootenai County will go another year without a pathology lab for the coroner’s office.

That means autopsies will continue to be performed over the state line by the Spokane County Medical Examiner’s Office, and the county — as well as other North Idaho counties — will continue to pay for Spokane pathologists to appear as expert witnesses in First District Court for homicide or drug overdose cases.

County commissioners on Monday shot down a request by Dr. Howard Keene, the county’s coroner, to fund a pathology lab in an empty space near the sheriff’s office earmarked as a new coroner’s office.

The coroner and his staff currently work out of the back of the county elections building on Third Street in Coeur d’Alene.

Commissioner Bill Brooks said the coming year’s budget will be bare bones in part because of the effects of the COVID-19 response that has torn through the local economy.

“This is an austerity budget,” Brooks said. “If we can wait and do without it, we will.”

For more than a decade the Kootenai County coroner’s office has been anticipating having its own pathology lab to perform autopsies, which have been farmed out to Spokane County for decades, and tests including toxicology that also require other vendors.

But with the county’s unprecedented population growth, an ongoing trend, coroners for several years — Keene has served four years — have been asking commissioners to fund a county lab.

“We’re not a small town anymore,” Keene said.

The number of cases the coroner’s office handles annually, Keene said, has increased to a projected 2,248 this year from 1,323 in 2015.

“Fortunately most of those are natural deaths, we don’t have too many suspicious deaths,” Keene said.

It costs the county about $150,000 annually for pathology and radiology, and those costs are expected to climb to $450,000 in five years.

“Depending on the vendors the county relies on,” he said.

Remodeling the existing facility near the sheriff’s office for a lab will cost an estimated $750,000. Having a lab in place would increase the coroner’s $450,000 annual budget by approximately 9%, but the lab would likely pay for itself within six years.

In an earlier hearing, sheriff’s detectives said having a local lab for autopsies would save them the time of going to Spokane to watch autopsies being performed, sometimes at short notice.

Commissioners balked at the request, however, citing the county’s long reliance on the Spokane medical examiners and the cost.

“My biggest issue is the ongoing costs, and not knowing exactly what the revenue would be,” Commissioner Leslie Duncan said.

Commissioner Chris Fillios said a budget shortfall this year means adding a lab to expenditures is out of the question.

“I don’t even know if we’re even at the point we could consider that,” Fillios said.

On addition to saving the $38,400 annually for expert witnesses, federal authorities would use the local forensics lab, paying about $12,000 annually, tissue harvesting would pay about $8,000 annually. Providing services for the other Panhandle counties would pay a projected $12,000, according to the coroner’s office.

“I consider it necessary,” Keene said. “I’m looking at the trends and the needs.”