BILLINGS – The Montana Department of Justice would like to have a state morgue in Billings as part of its effort to improve medical examiner services for the eastern part of the state.
The agency has asked the Legislature to pay for the project, department spokesman Eric Sell told the Billings Gazette.
Montana has a morgue at the state crime lab in Missoula, but it has contracted with St. Vincent Healthcare in Billings to use its morgue facilities on a per-case basis since 2015. However, the hospital morgue does not have adequate refrigerated storage and at times bodies awaiting a postmortem exam have to be stored at funeral homes and transported to St. Vincent.
The state asked Yellowstone County to help fund the facility, which would cost $600,000 to $900,000 and be staffed with two medical examiners along with support staff. County commissioners informally agreed to contribute $150,000 to the project. Sheriff Mike Linder estimated the county could save about $50,000 a year in transportation costs if a state morgue were available.
Professional organizations recommend that a state the size of Montana have at least two autopsy facilities, said Phil Kinsey, administrator of the Forensic Science Division, also known as the state crime lab.
Kinsey said having a morgue in Billings would be a follow-up to the department’s opening of a crime lab at Billings Clinic last year.
The morgue in Missoula has space for six to nine bodies while the morgue at St. Vincent has space for two to three bodies. Before 2015, county coroners in eastern Montana used private pathologists.
A site for a state morgue in Billings has not been identified, but Kinsey said he has talked to Billings Clinic and St. Vincent about space and planned to meet with real estate agents to look at private buildings that could be renovated.
Last year, the state conducted about 600 autopsies with about 350 exams in Missoula and about 250 in Billings.
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