State Drug Director calls out local coroners

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UNION COUNTY, Ark. (KTVE) — Arkansas’s Drug Director called out several coroners in the state for not using a free system that could help save lives.

The opioid epidemic has plagued the United States, even has significant effects in Arkansas. The state is ranked second in the country for over-prescribing opioid medications.

Kirk Lane, State Drug Director, describes Arkansas as having a “very high opioid-dependent generation.”

“That’s why this coroner stuff is so important,” he said. “They ought to be one of the key players in this issue but a lot of times they haven’t been.”​

Coroners across the state have been given free access to an online system called Medicolegal Death Investigation. MDI helps coroners record their data and document death investigation reports that are accurate and organized.

The system was made available by the state crime lab, Arkansas Regional Organ Recovery Agency (ARORA) and the Arkansas Association of Coroners.

“I wish I had the tool when I was an investigator,” Lane said. “It brings things into this century instead of doing hand-written reports.”

It’s also a method that generates information in real-time to the state. It helps officials know what specific deaths are occurring and where. It even helps in competing for funding. When do they get funding, it helps the state track which communities could benefit the funding.

“An example of that is right now, I’m putting 2020 funding into areas based on 2017-2018 data which may not be effective because problems are occurring in 2020 and not previous years,” Lane said.

Lane called out Ashley, Bradley, Calhoun, Ouachita and Columbia counties for not utilizing the system thus “hindering important data and federal funding.” Union County was the only one in the southeast that uses it.

Union County Coroner, Stormey Primm, has been leading the coroner’s office since 2018. He’s been taking advantage of the free system ever since.

“I feel that’s very crucial in moving our state forward and helping with funding and helping with these preventable deaths especially,” Primm said.

The job duties of a coroner are to determine a person’s cause of death and give closure to a family. More important than that, they are tasked with using death investigations to benefit the living.

“A lot of times, we can’t help chronic illnesses,” Primm said. “We can help with the accidental deaths. We can help educate on why these accidental deaths are occurring time after time.”

Primm says the system has been an easy way to generate statistics just as identifying mortality rates and trends.

“I can break this down to the point of a map to see where hot spots are,” Primm said. “It doesn’t have to be just one drug. If we have a lot of overdoses in a certain community, we can see that.”​

Prior to using the tool, the Union County Coroner’s office used handwritten notes during investigation. The hardest part for him was being able to read other’s notes.

Ashley County Coroner, Steve Hartshorn, said he doesn’t use the online tool because of a lack of resources and funding. Hartshorn runs Jones-Hartshorn funeral home in Hamburg, in addition to being the coroner.

He’s been balancing the two for 25 years now. He doesn’t have an office dedicated to him as coroner and uses resources from his funeral home to make ends meet.

He and his team get the job done but it’s not enough. He believes that’s the main reason why counties haven’t used the system, though he does plan to utilize it. It just won’t be on the spot because they don’t haven’t been funded technology to be able to document reports on the scene.

Lane says accurate reporting is important so the communities aren’t under-reported. When communities are under-reported, they can’t get services to help those struggling with opioids.

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