Washington County reviewing new contract for forensics

Robert Houk • May 3, 2020 at 6:49 PM

Washington County officials are considering a new contract with East Tennessee State University’s William L. Jenkins Forensic Center that sees costs grow by 2% annually over the next four years to cover death investigations and autopsies. 

If approved by Washington County commissioners, county Mayor Joe Grandy told the Public Safety Committee on Thursday that the county’s contract with ETSU for forensic services would increase from the current $279,902 to $285,500 in the new fiscal year.

Washington County is among eight counties in Northeast Tennessee that contract with ETSU at a per capita rate for those services.

Laura Parsons, the forensic center’s director of operations, said other counties in the region are also seeing a similar hike in the cost of their forensic services.

Grandy said the number of autopsies coming from Washington County has decreased since the ETSU program began in 2014. He said the forensic center investigated 266 Washington County deaths in 2016, Of that number, 178 involved autopsies.

In 2019, the forensics center investigated 293 deaths in Washington County, of which 138 included an autopsy. 

“It makes sense to me if we are seeing fewer autopsies that our costs would be going down instead of up,” Commissioner Kent Harris said last week.

Parsons said the forensic center is simply seeing more cases that don’t all require autopsies. She said many of these cases are closed by the medical examiner after conducting an eternal exam, or following a thorough review of the deceased person’s medical records.

“These cases are still being accepted by the medical examiner, who may decide not to conduct an autopsy,” Parsons said.

Commissioner Mike Ford told his colleagues Thursday he was “still not comfortable with how much it costs to do an autopsy.” 

Dr. John Schweitzer, chairman of ETSU’s Department pf Pathology, told members of the Public Safety Committee the county was getting comprehensive forensic services from the university,

“You are paying for a system — a death investigation system — not just for autopsies,” Schweitzer said. “This is a coherent system for all eight counties.”

Grandy also reminded the committee that Washington County is also receiving the services of a medical examiner through its contract with ETSU. He said Sullivan County is paying for its own medical examiner in addition to its contract with the forensic center.

The Public Safety voted 3-2 to send the forensics contract to the county’s Budget Committee to be reviewed this week. Commissioners Jim Wheeler, Jerome Fitzgerald and Freddie Malone supported the measure, with Ford and Harris voting “no.”



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