TARGET 8 Follow-Up: Bill would fund training for coroners
JEFFERSON CITY – A bill moving through the state legislature would help fund training for Missouri’s coroners. In February, KOMU 8 News investigated the state’s coroner system, finding there are some coroners not attending training and a lack of laws regulating how the elected officials do their jobs.
"I believe it's a step to make the coroner's office a stronger office. Better coroners, better identification of how somebody passed away, and I think it's definitely something that's needed,” bill sponsor Rep. Dan Houx, R-Warrensburg, said.
Currently, Missouri law states coroners must get 20 hours of training, and they can be fined $1,000 for not attending. But the executive director of the Missouri Coroners’ and Medical Examiners’ Association, Kathleen Little, said not everyone is attending, and not every county is levying the fine.
“There’s no real requirement for them to even come to training,” Little said. “There’s no punishment involved and it’s up to the county commission to decide whether they’re going to punish the coroner for not attending training. There’s no standard training for coroners across the board.”
Houx’s bill would establish a coroners training fund by collecting a one dollar fee on each death certificate. The association would get the money and use it for training, ideally from a national organization. The bill would also take away a coroner’s power to sign death certificates if he or she does not attend.
“It’s a problem because they are not being trained. There are some people that have been a coroner for a long time and possibly just don’t feel they need to have training,” Houx said.
Houx said coroners should be forced to have continuing education no matter how long they’ve been in office.
“Just like myself, I’m a real estate agent, licensed realtor, and we have to have continuing education. Same with an attorney. This is a situation that needs to have continuing education. Especially a new, first-time coroner needs to have training up front and continue on,” Houx said. “This bill allows it to have teeth to have some activities to take care of them when they don’t go to training.”
One family’s story
One father who lost his son sparked the original Target 8 story. Jayke Minor’s death was initially ruled an accidental drug overdose, but two years after his death, toxicology reports showed he only had THC, the metabolite of marijuana, in his system. Drug experts do not believe people can die from marijuana.
Unfortunately for Jayke Minor’s father, Jay Minor, there was no autopsy and most evidence from his death is gone.
"Nothing proves anything of what happened or might have happened. It was just completely overlooked and not investigated,” Jay Minor said. "I don't know what happened to Jayke. I was led to believe he died from drugs. So that's what I believed for two years. Then I began to question it.”
Some other county coroners said those questions could and should have been answered, if the initial coroner had done more investigating. Saline County Coroner Willie Harlow has been working with Jay Minor since last summer when he found out about his story. He has testified in favor of the bill in committee.
"If there's standardized training, then there is a standard operating procedure that we follow, and in this case you do this, in this case you do that. Instead of where we are now, where you just do whatever you want and there is no recourse or discipline whether it's right or wrong,” Harlow said.
Bill now in Senate committee
Houx first became interested in the issue of coroner training when there was an election in his own county; a man who was in the funeral home business and the son of a coroner was running for the office but so were other people, with no background in death – including a taxi driver.
“We had a couple other people run that never had any training or had anything to do really with the death of a person So it was interesting to see you had somebody that wanted to run that had no training,” Houx said. "I feel for the Minors and what happened there. Somebody who needed a little more training. A very sloppy case there.”
Houx said this is the first step in reforming the system, and he is interested in other ideas for change. One idea that seems unlikely, however, is taking the office away from a citizen coroner system on the county level, which is how most Missouri counties operate.
“In the rural areas, we’re having issues just having doctors, so to have one country doctor in an area and ask them to do the coroner and take away time… They maybe have to get up the next morning and perform a surgery, and for little pay of what the coroners do get paid,” Houx said.
House Bill 2079 is currently in a Senate committee. Houx is confident it will get to the floor after legislative spring break and that the bill will have strong support. It passed the House 144-10. An identical Senate bill is also in the same committee.