Bill calls for county coroners to track overdose deaths

FILE - This Feb. 19, 2013 file photo shows OxyContin pills are arranged for a photo at a pharmacy in Montpelier, Vt. In a report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in December 2015, drug overdoses in the U.S. rose again in 2014, driven by surges in deaths from heroin and powerful prescription painkillers such as Vicodin and Oxycontin. Overall, overdose deaths in the U.S. surpassed 47,000 — up 7 percent from 2013. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot, File)
FILE - This Feb. 19, 2013 file photo shows OxyContin pills are arranged for a photo at a pharmacy in Montpelier, Vt. In a report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in December 2015, drug overdoses in the U.S. rose again in 2014, driven by surges in deaths from heroin and powerful prescription painkillers such as Vicodin and Oxycontin. Overall, overdose deaths in the U.S. surpassed 47,000 — up 7 percent from 2013. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot, File)

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Indiana county coroners would be required to track overdose deaths and specify which drugs were involved as part of a bill being floated in the Indiana statehouse.

The idea behind the legislation is that by requiring Indiana counties to track these deaths, the state could get a better grasp over the scope of Indiana’s struggle with opioids and determine a way to address the epidemic.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Jim Merritt, R – Indianapolis, says he believes the tracking of the data could help the state come up with solutions to fix the problem.

“The more we progress, the more we have an understanding of the cause of death, the better we are able to get our arms around this and defeat the scourge,” Merritt said during an interview with I-Team 8.

Morgan County Coroner Annette Rohlman says she already tracks overdose deaths in her county.

“The number of deaths have substantially increased do to overdoses,” she said. “I think we are at 20 overdoses for 2016 but I am still waiting on some test results.”

Rohlman says the county’s overdose deaths are likely underestimated because many addicts who overdose are often transported to Indianapolis hospitals. If the person dies in Marion County, the case becomes a Marion County coroner case.

In 2016, Rohlman says her county officials spent $200,000 to build a morgue. She says it was built out of necessity because of the increase in overdose deaths.

While performing autopsies and drug screen labs is costly to the taxpayers of her county, Rohlman says it’s worth it if it means having a better idea of what drugs are in her community.

And not every Indiana county does that.

“It was a little bit shocking to me that some coroners around the state were not doing that,” she said.

Shelby County Coroner Robbie Stonebreaker is one of them who does not track overdose cases in his county.

While his county does perform drug lab tests using a private vendor, the county does not keep a running tally of opiate overdose deaths.

Stonebreaker says he likes the idea but has questions over how it will be paid for.

Merritt says the bill was drafted broadly so that if counties decide to rely on the state’s toxicology lab for testing, the state would be reimbursed. But that could create a backlog of cases.

Merritt said he would rather “get it right” referring to the cause of deaths than be expedient.

Senate Bill 74 also would allow for counties that use private labs for drug testing to be reimbursed by the state. Either way, there is a chance it could cost up to $1 million.

Merritt knows the cost is a concern but says it should be a cost the state is willing to pay if Indiana is serious about eradicating its opiate crisis.