Drug deaths on rise: officials

JOHNSTOWN – The Fulton County Coroner’s Office the past few months has experienced what it is calling an “unusual increase” in drug-related deaths in the county, and costs associated with their investigations.

That office, which also indicated in an internal county document this summer that new designer drugs like bath salts are “hitting our county,” is requesting $14,000 in additional county contingency funds to get through the rest of the year.

The request was approved last week by both the Board of Supervisors’ Public Safety and Finance committees, and awaits final approval Tuesday by the full board.

According to figures provided by the Coroner’s Office to county Budget Director Alice Kuntzsch, drug-related deaths investigated by the coroners increased from three in 2010, to seven in 2011, to 16 for 2012.

Coroner figures for 2013 won’t be available until the end of the year.

The original request for the $14,000 in contingent funding came from the office of Coroners Margaret Luck and Art Simmons to the Public Safety Committee.

Luck said drug-related deaths have increased greatly the last few years.

“Drug-related cases are up by more than 50 percent from the last three years,” Luck said Tuesday.

Simmons said Tuesday that Luck is “right on” the numbers of drug-related deaths being up. He also said their casework is up, with such incidents as a plane crash and murder this year.

“It’s a guesstimate,” Simmons said of budgeting. “In the Coroner’s Office in Fulton County, we watch expenses very carefully. Most of it, we have no control over.”

Simmons said Luck mentioned several months ago that she might have to go to the Board of Supervisors requesting more money. He also said he can only speak for his cases.

“I have seen a lot more [deaths] this year that are drug or alcohol-related; a lot more that require autopsies,” Simmons said. “We’ve had an unusual amount of cases.”

The rest of the data provided by the coroners to Kuntzsch shows that Fulton County’s natural deaths only increased from 21 in 2010 to 22 in 2012. Accident deaths went down, from eight in 2010 to six in 2012. There was one homicide in 2010, none in 2011, and one in 2012. There were four suicides in the county in 2010, three in 2011, but six in 2012.

In a July 10 internal document from the coroner’s office to Kuntzsch’s office, the request for a 6 percent coroner lab toxicology fee funding increase for 2014 was being made because of anticipated increases by vendors. But the funding increase also was asked for because Fulton County is “experiencing an increase in the use for more complicated toxicology inquiries due to the new designer drugs such as bath salts hitting our county,” the document says.

“We make every effort to stay within our budget,” the coroners’ 2014 budget statement said. “The coroner’s office feels the effects of new drug trends that lead to overdose, along with increase in depression that have led to suicide and the poor driving choices that lead to fatalities.”

The budget request also notes that it is estimated for 2014, depending on the amount of deaths, and based on 155 cases. Coroner’s lab transportation funding was increased by 14 percent for next year, and autopsy funding was hiked by 5 percent for 2014.

County Administrative Officer Jon Stead told supervisors at the committee level the coroner’s office for the past few months has experienced an “unusual increase of drug-related deaths, additional transportation cost, and an increase in autopsies.”

Exact figures were not provided.

Stead said these deaths – mostly occurring in homes – have led to the coroners not being able to determine the cause at the time of investigation. Stead said the coroners reported that situation has led to additional transports, autopsies and extensive toxicology testing being ordered to determine causes. The coroners related that the combination of all those factors has led to depletion of lab, transport and autopsy funds, with a negative balance for outstanding invoices.

Luck said Monday of the higher-than-normal drug-related deaths in the county: “It’s a mixture between their medications and illegal drugs.”

She added that the coroner’s office operates on a “bare-minimum” budget already.

Kuntzsch said Monday the total 2013 adopted budget for the coroner’s office was $71,250. The total estimated budget for 2014 is $74,350. Expenditures in prior budgets for the coroner’s office were: 2012 – $78,574; 2011- $65,464; and 2010 – $69,813.

Northampton Supervisor Linda Kemper, chairwoman of the board’s Public Safety Committee, said Luck and Simmons have no choice but to ask for more money for 2013.

“It was an abnormally high year for autopsies and costs associated with that,” Kemper said. “Their budget is so small there’s not a lot of other places they can pull it from.”

Luck and Simmons requested transferring $14,000 from the county contingent fund to cover budget shortfalls in the coroner’s office through 2013.

In a written request to the committee, the coroners noted that “historically, we have been known to be unfortunately busy during the months of November and December.”