The chief medical examiner in St. Tammany Parish performed nearly 300 autopsies last year — 50 more than is recommended by a leading professional organization, according to St. Tammany Coroner Charles Preston.
Dr. Michael DeFatta, the Coroner’s Office’s only forensic pathologist, did 238 autopsies from St. Tammany and another 59 from Washington Parish in 2014, Preston told the St. Tammany Parish Council on Thursday night.
The Coroner’s Office also has reached a deal to perform autopsies for Iberville Parish and is close to similar deals with two other parishes, Preston said.
Preston cited those statistics in asking the council to approve almost $200,000 in additional funds for his office in 2015. The money would be used to hire another forensic pathologist and a morgue technician to help alleviate DeFatta’s workload.
Right now, DeFatta is the only person in the Coroner’s Office who can perform autopsies; when he goes on vacation, the parish has to pay the Coroner’s Office in another parish to perform the autopsies.
DeFatta also serves as the director of the coroner’s DNA and toxicology labs, Preston said.
The National Association of Medical Examiners suggests that medical examiners perform no more than 250 autopsies per year, Preston said.
By comparison, Jefferson Parish has three forensic pathologists who each perform about 150 autopsies per year, Preston said.
Preston asked the council to approve a budget amendment that would allow him to spend up to $188,000 on paying the new employees this year.
He said he expects the two new positions to cost more than $250,000 for a full year. A forensic pathologist likely would command between $140,000 and $180,000 a year and a morgue technician between $25,000 and $35,000, he said.
“Realistically, I am hoping to start them in April,” Preston said. If, however, suitable candidates cannot be found, Preston said he would target July 1, known as the “medical new year” because residencies and fellowships end June 30.
“There is a shuffling of specialists then,” he said, and new candidates become available.
The council referred the matter to its Finance Committee for consideration. It could come back before the council in March.
Preston noted that DeFatta has been named chief deputy coroner — a position he also held under previous Coroner Peter Galvan. However, when Galvan resigned under the cloud of a federal indictment, DeFatta refused to fill in as interim coroner, as provided for in state law.
Covington cardiologist Pramod Menon was named interim coroner by the Parish Council. After Preston was elected, Menon stayed on as chief deputy coroner until recently, when he resigned, and DeFatta was reappointed chief deputy, Preston said.
Galvan’s troubles — he is serving 24 months in federal prison, with another 12 months after that in state prison — led the council to take control of much of the Coroner’s Office’s finances. Last fall, Preston and the council reached an agreement returning some of that control to the coroner, but he still had to present his request for additional funding to the council.
St. Tammany Bureau Chief Sara Pagones contributed to this report. Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon .