Hiring a new chief medical examiner for the First Judicial Circuit has been difficult.
The counties in the circuit — Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa and Walton — were close to a deal to hire Dr. Scott Luzi from San Diego, but earlier today he backed out.
“The update is that Dr. Scott Luzi, who is the only applicant and the one the search committee had recommended be appointed, has withdrawn his application. So now we have no applicants,” State Attorney Bill Eddins said in a telephone interview this morning.
“We’re just not getting anywhere, and really the reason I’ve been given by several of the applicants that have withdrawn is the situation that currently exists in the First Circuit where the last medical examiner and two of the counties remain engaged in a lawsuit against each other.”
Eddins is referring to the dispute between outgoing Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Andrea Minyard and Escambia and Okaloosa counties over fees for services, salary and budget transparency.
As chairman of the Medical Examiner’s Search Committee, Eddins has scheduled a committee meeting at the Escambia County Judicial Center on Sept. 18 at 2:30 p.m. The agenda will include discussion of the latest development and consideration of whether to hire a professional "headhunter" to find a replacement.
“The number of medical examiners in America does not match the number of positions available,” Eddins said. “There’s a dramatic shortage of medical examiners in America and they’re very hard to find even under the best of circumstances.”
Meantime, the medical examiner’s position is being advertised on the website of one of the national organizations and is in the process of being readvertised on the other two associations commonly used.
Given that Minyard’s resignation as medical examiner is effective Sept. 30, local officials are shifting their focus to finding an interim medical examiner as soon as possible.
Negotiations are now underway with Dr. Timothy Gallagher, who works in the local Medical Examiner’s Office as the associate of Dr. Minyard.
“He’s done a very competent job,” Eddins said of Gallagher. “I’ve made that clear to the counties and have recommended to them that they negotiate a salary with him.”Because of the ongoing dispute with the medical examiner’s office, Eddins warned the cost for a temporary solution is likely to be more expensive, on a prorated basis, than the committee’s recommended annual salary range of $250,000 - $350,000.
“If we’re unable to obtain an interim medical examiner, we will be in a crisis situation October 1,” declared Eddins. “It is absolutely essential that we have someone that is able to do an autopsy rapidly to determine whether or not a homicide has occurred if it’s a suspicious death.”
The medical examiner’s office for the First Circuit conducts several hundred autopsies each year, with a tremendous growth in the number due in part to the opioid crisis.
Eddins says Gallagher has already performed more than 300 autopsies, surpassing the normal annual load of between 215- 275.
In the short run, Eddins has requested the counties negotiate a salary agreement with Gallagher in an effort to have an interim medical examiner in place prior to Oct. 1, the day after Minyard’s resignation.
“That will take the pressure off and we will be able to seek a permanent medical examiner at a measured pace and the interim medical examiner could operate for several months,” Eddins said.