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I-TEAM: Backlog in death certificates leaves grieving families without critical benefits

Published: Oct. 5, 2020 at 6:28 PM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - All across the Augusta area, families are waiting for critical benefits from Social Security to life insurance. We’ve found death benefits in our region are being delayed for months, even years.

Our I-Team uncovered this is all because of one missing piece of paper. What’s more, is this delay for families and children in need could soon get even longer.

It’s a cycle. A death certificate isn’t just the official record of how someone died. It’s also the document required to get the decedent’s death benefits, and in a lot of cases, you can’t get a death certificate without an autopsy. But we found increasingly, not enough people want that job. It’s a problem not only in Georgia but across the country.

It’s become an issue for Kelli Devore and her family since her brother, Scott Devore, was found dead.

“We don’t even know what happened to him officially,” Kelli said.

Investigators found Scott’s body on the side of the road in Wrens 19 days after he disappeared from his home in Augusta. Ronald Harris is charged with his murder.

Kelli says her brother would light up a room.

“He was the life of the party,” Kelli said. “Anywhere he went, people just gravitated towards him. He was so much fun to be around. He did hair and he was amazing at it.”

Kelli says her family still doesn’t even have an autopsy report.

State law requires autopsies on any suspicious or unusual deaths, including deaths involving violence, drug overdoses, and children. In Georgia, autopsies are conducted by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

Richmond County Coroner Mark Bowen says the average turnaround time for an autopsy report in the county is between 60 to 120 days.

Bowen is currently waiting on 45 reports. Nearly 80 percent have been pending for more than a month -- some even more than three months.

Bowen can’t sign a death certificate until he gets an autopsy report.

“It has to slow down the investigation,” Bowen said. “It slows down the family’s financial closing for the death.”

A death certificate is an official recording of the cause, date, and place of a person’s death. It’s also the only legal document that allows a widow to claim Social Security survivor benefits or a family to access a life insurance claim or an estate. Even victims of violent crime need a death certificate to apply for assistance. A delay in a death certificate means a delay in a financial lifeline for many families already grieving.

The Devores have been waiting seven months. They are one of more than a hundred families across Georgia who have been waiting more than 30 days for their loved one’s autopsy report to come back. We found from January through August, the GBI has conducted 520 autopsies across the entire state -- an 80 percent decrease in the number of autopsies the agency did in that time period last year.

Georgia coroners say the backlog is so severe, in 358 other cases this year, coroners have called and consulted with the GBI over the phone to determine the cause of death rather than sending a body for an official autopsy.

“With Macon closing, you are adding 37 more counties to the Atlanta GBI, so it’s going to slow down even more now,” Bowen said.

Why are they closing these? They say they are unable to find a pathologist that has the experience. Or find a pathologist. Period.

We obtained all applications for medical examiner with the GBI since 2019. Fifty-five people applied, including an Amazon driver, a Wendy’s employee, a Kroger cashier, and a fragrance salesperson at Belk. Only 15 held a medical degree and 11 of those listed experience.

“They have not become an expert in interpreting toxicology which can be very complicated. Infections disease. Injuries of all sorts,” Dr. Joseph White with AU Health said.

White worked as an assistant medical examiner in Salt Lake City for 5 years before coming to Augusta University.

“It requires an additional year of training after your residency training. And the end result you are often going to make a little bit less than your colleagues,” White said.

We found the problem in Georgia isn’t pay -- it’s supply and demand.

The National Commission on Forensic Science reports only about 500 board-certified forensic pathologists are practicing in the United States. Nearly 1,200 are needed across the country.

“Unfortunately, this moves at a glacier pace and it will take some time to fix a problem that has gotten as big as it has,” White said

AU’s first two forensic pathologists will graduate from a fellowship with the GBI this spring. White is the co-director of the program. This will bring the state’s total number of forensic pathologists entering the workforce each year to three. Just three. Two from AU. One from Emory.

“You know, we build a bond with these families and it really upsets us for them to delay the cause of death for our families,” Bowen said.

“I’m just shocked how much longer do we have to wait? And why? I don’t understand why?” Kelli said.

The log jam leaves families like the Devores unable to break the cycle of grief as time keeps ticking with no closure in sight.

A coroner can list pending autopsy on a death certificate. This can help a family freeze a loved one’s bank account, but it will not help them access benefits. They still need a completed death certificate. Last month, the GBI announced it would keep the Macon lab open until December to help with the backlog.

Copyright 2020 WRDW/WAGT. All rights reserved.

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