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Preckwinkle: Medical examiner standing in way of fixing morgue problems

Bodies stacked top bodies Cook County medical examiner's office 2012.

Bodies stacked on top of bodies in the Cook County medical examiner's office in 2012.

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Updated: January 25, 2013 10:15PM

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle suggested the chief medical examiner is standing in the way of cleaning up problems plaguing the county morgue.

On Wednesday, Preckwinkle was asked about a report in the Chicago Sun-Times detailing employees’ disgust over bodies piling up at the office — in some cases stacked atop each other in blue plastic tarps against a wall of the storage cooler.

Preckwinkle pointed to financial woes — namely the state curbing funding that covered the costs of burying the poor — for the office’s inability to promptly bury the dead. But Preckwinkle also suggested Jones is part of the problem.

“There have been recurring problems there, that’s quite true,” Preckwinkle told reporters after a county board meeting. “My ability to deal with it is limited by the fact that the person who is in charge of it has a term of office as opposed to serving at my pleasure.”

Pressed about whether she’s dissatisfied with Jones, Preckwinkle said: “I’ll leave it with that.”

Jones, a longtime employee in the medical examiner’s office, did not return a call for comment Wednesday.

Former board president Todd Stroger appointed Jones chief medical examiner in 2007. Under county ordinance, the president recommends someone for the position, who then must be approved by the entire board. Unlike political appointees, under the ordinance, “the Medical Examiner’s term continues until he or she resigns or is removed for cause following notice and an opportunity to be heard,” Preckwinkle spokeswoman Liane Jackson wrote in an email to the Sun-Times.

Last week, when asked about complaints there, Jones told the Sun-Times “yes, we do” have a larger than normal number of bodies at the office. But she said there were about 300 bodies at the morgue, not the 600 that sources inside the morgue say are piling up there.

While Jones said there is no average for the number of bodies kept in the morgue, she said the increase in the number of bodies is the result, in part, because state aid to help pay for indigent burials had been slashed.

Typically, after examination or autopsy, bodies remain at the office for a few days until funeral directors pick them up for burial or cremation.

But when grieving families can’t afford a burial, the county takes over. Last fall, the medical examiner’s office revealed a controversial plan to donate to science the remains that go unclaimed after only two weeks — unless families object. Others were still to be buried in the pauper’s graves in Homewood, for which the county previously paid $300 each.

The state last summer cut $13 million from the program, but Jones told the Sun-Times on Friday that the county received word that the state had reinstated funding.

On Wednesday, 30 adult bodies and 47 fetuses were buried in pauper’s graves.

“My understanding … is that in the past we’ve relied on state resources to bury people promptly, but those resources have evaporated and so now we’re looking for our own sources of funds in light of the state’s … diminished support,” Preckwinkle said.

Preckwinkle said she has yet to visit the morgue at 2121 W. Harrison and doesn’t have it on her calendar any time soon to do so.

“My son was in a medical tech program … in which he had to observe an autopsy,” Preckwinkle said. “He managed it, I don’t think I could. That doesn’t preclude me I suppose from going to the medical examiner’s office.”

Contributing: Lauren Fitzpatrick

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