Bodies piling up in the morgue, medical examiners spread thin

Doctors in the profession of performing autopsies are often over-worked and underpaid, especially in Kentucky.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WHAS11) – Examining the dead.

Doctors in the profession of performing autopsies continue to be overworked and underpaid in the Bluegrass State.

Over the last three years, an average of 2,667 cases have come through Kentucky’s four branches of the State Medical Examiner’s Office.

That averages between 296 and 297 autopsies for each of the commonwealth’s nine forensic pathologists, each year.

The overwhelmingly rise in bodies is large part due to one growing problem according to the head of the Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet.

“In the midst of a drug scourge, an opioid pandemic, the likes of which we’ve never seen in this country,” Cabinet Secretary John Tilley said.

Tilley points out that since 2016 state morgues have handled 500 more autopsies.

Kentucky is a top-five state for deadly overdoses, but in the bottom five for pay at M.E. Offices.

Therefore, it’s difficult to recruit and retain forensic pathologists out of medical school.

However, hoping to add more medical examiners, the state has partnered with the University of Louisville and the University of Kentucky.

“Under the new arrangement, all physicians (new state forensic pathologists) will become full-time employees of the university,” UofL’s Chair of Pathology, Dr. Eyas Hattab said.

That comes with an average raise of 15 perfect, on top of the state salary of between $130,000 to about $155,000.

Still, that’s on the low end of pay nationally.

“They have to want to be here,” Sec. Tilley pointed out.

Although Kentucky is adding a 10th medical examiner and “salary is not her driving force,” Tilley admits it’s a tough sell, especially for new doctors who have hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical school debt, and money in medicine is much more lucrative in other fields.

“We simply cannot provide the service we once did,” Tilley said. “Without figuring out a more efficient way to do it.”

►Contact reporter John Charlton at jcharlton@whas11.com. Follow him on Twitter (@JCharltonNews) and Facebook.