I-Team 8

COVID-19, homicides, ODs strain Marion County coroner’s budget

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — This year, the Marion County coroner has investigated close to 300 homicides, a record number of drug overdose deaths and an increasing number of COVID-related deaths — and adding fuel to the fire is a shortage of trained staff.  

Inside of a gray two-story building on the near southwest side of town is where the final chapter of many of our neighbors’ lives are read — the Marion County Coroner’s Office. Inside of the building, the staff unravels the mysteries of death — and 2021 has given them plenty to work with. 

“At the beginning of the year, they were pretty burnt out, you know. At the beginning of the year, we saw three mass shootings before April,” said Chief Deputy Coroner Alfie McGinty. 

The 2021 budget was set at just under $3 million. A combination of crime, drugs and the pandemic took a huge bite from the budget, and the coroner would have run out of money in November without an infusion of $385 thousand from the City-County Council.

Death investigations are handled by forensic pathologists, and there is a national shortage of people trained to do that work.  

“When you are talking about hiring a forensic pathologist, you are talking about a salary from anywhere from $180,000 upwards. Now it is so competitive salaries are upwards of $290,000 due to a shortage,” said McGinty. 

Marion County has three full-time and three part-time forensic pathologists on staff. An increase in cases has forced the office to hire traveling forensic pathologists who charge around $1,500 per case.

Another cost that is growing — the number of homicide victims with COVID. The exam is done at a separate facility at Indiana University.

“It is seems to be increasing — we seem to have them about once a month now in the last six months, and we don’t see that number decreasing especially with the surge of COVID cases we are seeing,” said McGinty.

Every homicide victim that dies in a Marion County hospital becomes a case for the Marion County coroner, regardless of where the original crime occurred. This year, close to 20 victims from outside of the county have become the coroner’s responsibility. Getting reimbursed from surrounding counties is almost impossible. 

“According to state law, those counties should reimburse our office, and we have requested reimbursement. However, there is no teeth in the law that said those counties must pay or have to pay … Typically, we don’t get reimbursed” said McGinty.

As we move into a new year, the coroner’s office is closing the book on a year of record homicides, record drug overdoses and a pandemic that keeps marching forward.  

“Realistically, it is going to depend on the influx of drugs, what we see with what the community is able to do with the violence. Realistically, it is a challenge for me to see that things are going to slow down and be on a downward trend” said McGinty.

The Marion County Coroner’s Office is hoping to see a reduction of cases this coming year, but the combination of drugs, murder and COVID isn’t showing any signs of slowing down.