Vitale Bill Would Standardize Drug Overdose Data for Medical Examiners

Joe Vitale. File photo

Two prominent state lawmakers have introduced a bill to create statewide standards for medical examiners testing and reporting drug overdoses, something Gov. Chris Christie has said is needed to help combat the opioid epidemic.

Senate Health Committee Chairman Joe Vitale and incoming Assembly speaker Craig Coughlin (both D-Middlesex) introduced a bill Thursday that would establish uniform standards for conducting autopsies in all New Jersey counties. Currently, the medical examiners in each county have varying rules and procedures.

The state and county-level medical examiners investigate unexpected deaths such as homicides, suicides and the deaths of children under the age of 3, and perform autopsies in those and other circumstances.

Vitale and Coughlin’s bill would require county medical examiners to fully cooperate with the Office of the State Medical Examiner.

Vitale said Monday that he has been working with the Christie administration in drafting the bill (S3605), which is expected to move quickly during the lame-duck legislative session. The bill is scheduled to be considered by Vitale’s Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee on Thursday. The measure must be signed into law by Jan. 9 or it will expire and would have to be reintroduced in the next legislative session.

Christie, who has made battling the opioid crisis his top priority before leaving office, has said counties currently have different standards for what constitutes a drug overdose death, which has prevented the state from getting accurate information about the scope of the opioid epidemic.

“Some of these deaths are not attributed to drug overdoses when they should be,” Vitale said.

The measure also would give county medical examiners the chance to purchase toxicology or other laboratory testing services as part of a contract entered into on behalf of the state. It would expand the list of places where a state medical examiner can use lab facilities to locations such as state medical universities.

During a news conference on his efforts to fight the opioid epidemic on Oct. 10, Christie said he would consider signing a bill to set statewide standards for medical examiners if it was crafted to his liking. He announced that day that the state Office of the Medical Examiner would get additional funding to hire staff, upgrade equipment and outsource certain toxicology reporting.

The governor’s office declined to comment Monday on Vitale’s bill.

“I think the state [medical examiner] office is fairly well funded, but the county offices are generally underfunded, and I don’t think people thought about the effect that that would have on the opioid crisis and our ability to be able determine what is exactly going on county by county and find hot spots and then deal with those hot spots,” Christie said Oct. 10.

Vitale said he plans to introduce a bill next year that would further overhaul the medical examiner system throughout the state. While he didn’t get into details, he said he wants to make the system more efficient and “raise the level of expertise,” adding that some counties don’t have medical examiners.

Vitale Bill Would Standardize Drug Overdose Data for Medical Examiners