April 23, 2014

York County coroner wants to double fee for toxicology reports

The cost of reports showing the chemicals in a dead person’s body or blood would double for attorneys, insurance agents and the public if York County leaders approve a proposed fee hike.

The cost of reports showing the chemicals in a dead person’s body or blood would double for attorneys and insurance agents if York County leaders approve a proposed fee hike.

The York County Coroner’s Office now charges $25 for toxicology reports, which show what substances were present in a person’s body when they died. Coroner Sabrina Gast is asking the York County Council to increase the fee to $50 to pay for the increasing cost of fulfilling requests for copies of those tests.

The York County Council gave initial approval to the increased fee on Monday, and could take the second of three needed votes when it meets next month.

Gast’s office spent $14,500 so far this budget year to pay for toxicology tests from National Medical Services, a private forensics lab.

“A lot of the offices around the state are charging,” Gast said. “The county is paying for those reports.”

The fees were last changed in 2002. Gast also wants to charge $15 for photographs her office will provide on CDs, but will keep the price of autopsy reports, coroner’s reports and cremation permits the same. The coroner’s office does not charge family members of the deceased, law enforcement, prosecutors or other county agencies it typically works with for copies of those reports. The public is unable to request copies of those reports, Gast said, because they are considered medical records.

The higher fee would mostly affect law firms and insurance companies that use the reports in medical malpractice or wrongful-death litigation.

The cost of a toxicology test ranges from $300 to $1,000, depending on the results a coroner is seeking, Gast said.

If her office is investigating a traffic fatality, she said, it would pay less if it asks for a test for specific substances in the body, such as alcohol or drugs.

When seeking toxicology results when a cause of death is suspicious or unknown, Gast’s office typically pays more because it must test for a variety of substances and conditions.

York County coroners request toxicology tests for all traffic fatalities, Gast said. Those tests typically require screening for alcohol, illegal drugs such as cocaine or marijuana, and prescription medications, such as Xanax, morphine and anti-depressants.

The cost grows even more when coroners must request tests for victims who might have “designer drugs,” such as bath salts or K2 spice, in their systems.

“The more items you request, the more expensive your test is,” Gast said. “It’s very case-dependent.”

If coroners feel a person’s death is directly related to alcohol or drugs, then National Medical Service performs the toxicology tests, returning results within two months. The bodies of people who die as a result of homicide or a traffic accident not involving drugs or alcohol are sent to the State Law Enforcement Division, which might not return results for up to four months.

When considering the fee hike, Gast said, her office polled other coroner’s offices in the state, including Richland and Horry counties. The fees she is requesting, she said, are about in the middle of fees charged by other counties.

Richland County Coroner Gary Watts said his office provides a full autopsy report, including the toxicology results, to defense attorneys or outside agencies for $500. Horry County Coroner Robert Edge charges $5 for toxicology and coroner’s reports, and $25 for autopsy reports. He said the Horry County Council has declined his request to charge more.

“It’s not an out-of-the-way request for outside agencies to request them to pay for those reports,” Gast said.

Those reports can be an “essential... element of proof” in civil or criminal cases, said Willy Thompson, deputy 16th Circuit Solicitor. Toxicology tests are vital in cases that require blood tests to prove a crime, such as felony driving under the influence.

Rock Hill attorney Randy Hood said the reports also can mean the difference between whether a person’s death might indicate foul play or be ruled a suicide or death by natural causes.

While Hood typically requests a full autopsy report directly from the pathologist, he said, working with the coroner might provide new evidence about a death, and the coroner decides to reopen an investigation.

“It cuts both ways,” Thompson said. “It helps make more accurate determinations of what was going on.

“Just because someone’s high or drunk doesn’t mean they’ve committed a crime (such as) attacking somebody. Oftentimes, a victim and defendant were together drinking or doing drugs when one acts out and does something to a person illegally.”

And that can lead to someone’s death.

Alcohol or drugs don’t “negate the fact they were killed or give the defendant some sort of reprieve.”

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