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Thursday, August 13, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Editorial: Long waits for death certificates are unacceptable

Families grieving the death of a loved one have enough to deal with without the state of Washington forcing some of them to wait months for death certificates. Lawmakers should prioritize helping those families obtain a document that’s critical to completing many post-mortem tasks, not least receiving life insurance payments to cover funeral costs and other expenses.

At the heart of the problem is a state law that requires autopsies and toxicology tests for individuals whose deaths weren’t expected or aren’t readily explainable. That’s generally sound policy, in the best interests of survivors and the general public. But no one’s interests are served when those results take five to six months – as they currently do in Spokane County – or even longer.

A single lab in Seattle handles all the blood tests for unattended deaths statewide, The Spokesman-Review’s Kip Hill recently reported. Last year, the backlog grew to nearly 6,000 cases, in part because the lab is so busy processing a rapidly increasing number of blood tests required for drunken-driving cases.

The Washington State Patrol, which runs the lab, won funding from the state for six additional positions last summer. That helped reduce some waits, but the problem persists in part because lawmakers approved only $1.3 million of the WSP’s request for an additional $3.2 million for its lab facilities this year.

Much of the WSP budget discussion focused on another pressing need, according to state Rep. Timm Ormsby, who heads the House Appropriations Commission. The WSP lab system currently has a backlog of about 10,000 rape kits, and the Legislature has commendably set aside $10 million to accelerate lab work on those kits.

But the Legislature shouldn’t be choosing between providing sufficient funds for processing rape kits, DUI tests and toxicology reports for autopsies. All three are important, and the Legislature has an obligation to ensure there is enough money to get each of those tests processed promptly.

The Spokane Medical Examiner’s Office handles cases in a 12-county region. Officials say the wait times for toxicology reports are down this year, but last year there were two cases where the results took 318 and 288 days. “This office is currently unable to estimate the length of time required for toxicology results to be returned from the Washington State Toxicology Laboratory,” the medical examiner’s office explains on its website.

Given the spike in opioid abuse in recent years, it’s likely many jurisdictions across the country are struggling to keep up with toxicology demands. But four to six weeks appears to be the standard wait. In San Diego, officials say toxicology reports are usually complete in four to eight weeks, and a death certificate is ready a few weeks after that.

Although officials in Washington state say they have no record of complaints from families, it’s obvious the delays can add to their troubles. In most cases, insurers won’t release life insurance money if there’s any question about the cause of death.

“Usually life insurance is purchased with the idea those funds will help the family press forward with their financial situation, until they get their feet back under them,” said Trent Nielsen, a Spokane Valley funeral director.

And that’s just one place that will ask for a death certificate. Closing bank accounts and credit cards, distributing investments, collecting long-term care insurance, finalizing taxes and more can require proof that the deceased is dead. Experts recommend that families order 10 to 20 copies for everything that might come up.

If compassion for families isn’t enough, there’s another compelling reason for state lawmakers to ensure toxicology tests are processed promptly. Data from the tests can alert law enforcement to especially dangerous drugs in the community and also help public health officials detect trends in substance abuse among particular populations.

Washington can do better. If the state is going to require toxicology tests in so many circumstances, it needs to fund the infrastructure to do it in a reasonable amount of time. Months – or close to a year – is far from reasonable.

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